Teenagers’ struggles to connect with their peers in the early adolescent years while not getting swept along by negative peer influences predict their capacity to form strong friendships and avoid serious problems as much as a decade later, concludes a longitudinal study by University of Virginia psychologists that appears in the journal Child Development.
“Overall, we found that teens face a high-wire act with their peers,” said Joseph P. Allen, the Hugh P. Kelly Distinguished Professor of Psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences at U.Va., who led the study. “They need to establish strong, positive connections with them, while at the same time establishing independence in resisting deviant peer influences. Those who don’t manage this have significant problems as much as a decade later.”
Teens who had trouble connecting well with their peers in early adolescence had difficulty establishing close friendships in young adulthood. Teens who didn’t connect well at 13 also had more difficulty managing disagreements in romantic relationships as adults.
Teens who had trouble establishing some autonomy and independence with peers (especially with respect to minor forms of deviance, such as shoplifting and vandalism) were found to be at higher risk for problems with alcohol and substance use, and for illegal behavior, almost a decade later.
Conversely, teens who were seen as desirable companions – those deemed empathetic, able to see things from different perspectives and control their impulses, and having a good sense of humor – were more likely to have positive relationships in young adulthood.
Further, teens who were able to establish some autonomy from peers’ influences were more likely to avoid problematic behavior in young adulthood, with teens who showed they were able to think for themselves in the face of negative peer influences using less alcohol as early adults and having fewer problems with alcohol and substance abuse as young adults.