How to Talk to Kids about the Lifechanging Benefits of Friendship

This podcast episode focuses on friendship and how important it is—not just to our psychological wellbeing but to our physical health as well. Friendship, as it turns out, affects us down to our cellular level. How can we talk to kids about these important benefits and how loneliness and lack of friends can impact us as well? Dr. Robyn Silverman interviews Lydia Denworth, the author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond on the How to Talk to Kids about Anything podcast.

Special Guest: Lydia Denworth

The concept of friendship is universal and elemental. Friends have been called the family we choose. But is friendship just child’s play? What makes these bonds not just fun or pleasant but also essential? How do our friends and the relationships we have with them affect our bodies and our minds? We will delve into this important topic, what we need to know as parents but also how friendship is fundamental to all of us, as backed by evolution, biology and psychological research, with the well-celebrated author, Lydia Denworth.

Bio

Lydia Denworth is an award-winning science journalist and a sought-after speaker. She is a contributing editor at Scientific American and the author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, which was named one of the best leadership books of 2020 by Adam Grant and called “the best of science writing” by Booklist. She has written two other books of popular science: I Can Hear You Whisper and Toxic Truth. Her work has also appeared in The AtlanticNew York TimesWall Street JournalNewsweekTime and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.    

Important Messages:

  • Think- what you eat and going for a jog is going to have more of an impact on your health- you feel your heart beating and muscles going- you have a sense of how this is connected to your physical life. How is it that something outside of the body- like friendship- get under the skin (as biologists say) and affect our health? Counterintuitive.
    • Cardiovascular benefits- susceptibility to inflammation and viruses
    • Sleep
    • Stress
    • Cognitive health- risk of dementia
    • Mental health- risk of depression
    • Rate at which our cells age (age faster if we are really lonely)
    • Longevity- how long we live
  • Loneliness vs alone: Social isolation (objective measure of amount of social connection- size of social network- experienced during pandemic). Loneliness: (Subjective measure) It’s the mismatch between the amount of social connection you want and the amount that you have.” Both kids can be an issue for your health. What matters more- being truly lonely and being unhappy about it. That loneliness that connects to physical issues. Two ends of a spectrum- good strong social integration on one side (friendship) and lack of it on the other (loneliness). Loneliness- can see the problem. Physiological issues. Immune system- white blood cells- lucasites- actually change how they are expressed. Genes lay out a blueprint of who you are going to be but experience has a lot to do with whether your genes are turned on or off—if they are expressed. (Like an opinion that is voices or not voiced). Loneliness can impact how their genes express themselves. Socially integrated- different profile of how cells express. (Also in other species!)
  • Rhesus monkey- social stress- stable environment vs changing environment.
  • Our bodies- if living in extreme poverty, extreme war times, loneliness is that stressful on body. Changes biology and makes us sicker.
  • Flip side- friendship is good for us. Simple and profound.
  • What about neglected and rejected kids? (1) Know how important friendship vs loneliness is and (2) Know you only need one friend to get benefits. Need to find their people or their person. (3) Takes a lot of time to make friend- might think we like someone right away- but still need time to get to know them. (Kids- do parallel play or do things together, second step is that they experience something special together. More connected by that. We put kids together and then there is a process that needs to play out. Needs time. All friendships need time. Harder as you get older—adult.
  • No one way to do friendship. Your kid might socialize differently that you do.
  • If your child struggles in every social area- that is cause for concern. With family over the holiday to school. Same issues everywhere? Then need help. But if you can find settings where a child can be more comfortable and confident, then that’s what to pursue. If you are really worried about a child, you want to see them in different settings- do they have the same issues every where they go? Get professional advice.
  • So much of friendship is about shared interests. Aristotle even saw this. Shared interests, like the same things, similar.
  • Careful! Parents see that everyone plays flag football and soccer they might think – I’m going to put my kid in there because that’s where they are going to make friends- but if your kid isn’t into it- might not be the best place to put your child. Have to separate your aspirations from who your kid is.
  • We talk to kids about achievement, extra curricular activities, time management or organizational skills but we don’t often do the same things for their social skills. And we need to, sometimes. We don’t arrive in this world knowing how to make friends.
  • Caroline Maguire (DrRobynSilverman.com/CMaguire_RR) talks about the kinds of behaviors that get in their way. Dominating conversation. Insisting that other people do what they want to do. Executive functioning.
  • As parents, it’s often easy to point fingers and say it’s the other kids- but sometimes it’s your kid who is having a hard time figuring how to interact. Gently helping. How? What you enjoy that YOUR friend does. Model what you do for your friends. Talk about problems with friends- “I was with my friend Cathy and all she did was talk about herself.” Conversation starters. Talk through with kids- how to develop social skills. It takes time. And it’s something that needs to be learned! And practiced.
  • Kids come into this world- social brains developed first by interactions with parents. When they get to school- other set of skills. Cooperation, collaboration and how to be a friend. Give help and not just receive it. With parents, they are always the ones helping you. A big part of friendship is helping others. Compromise. Interact with groups of peers.
  • In a study of thousands of 6th graders- in US- larger middle schools Yes- 2/3 of kids change who they are friends with from September and June. When you’re in the middle of it, it doesn’t feel like it’s everyone. Interests seems to gel and become more prevalent in those school years and middle school years.
  • What’s hard about friendship? What’s normal?
  • Friends change over the course of our lives and that’s completely normal. You change, they change, your interests change, you move- so your friends change. And this is normal. What’s really important is that you have a couple of really good, strong, quality relationships.
  • Popularity: It’s hard when we are adults because we see it more clearly. (1) “Being popular is not the same as having friends.” (2) What’s important is having one good friend. (Recognize that it’s hard- because we want to be connected and well liked). (3) Talk about that it’s not all that it looks like. (4) What is the definition of a good friend?
  • Everyone seems to be talking about the same thing. A really good quality friendship has to have three things: It’s stable and long-lasting. Positive- makes you feel good. And it’s cooperative which means there’s a reciprocity to it. A back and forth. An evenness or a quality. People will talk about trust and companionships and kindness- “I would argue that all of those fall into these three categories.” That definition- translates to us how to be a good friend. (1) Be steady reliable presence. (2) Make them feel good, allow them to make you feel good. Does it work both ways? And (3) if it’s cooperative or lopsided. Hot and cold? Fight a lot? Not good for us. Kids are going to go through them as they are learning how it works. How do you feel when you are with so and so? Identify what are good strong qualities in friendship and what are not?
  • Old friend- draining-but that’s not a healthy relationship.  Ask the questions- can your kids come to their own conclusions byt leading them through the conversations? Works better when they figure it out on their own.
  • Make talking about friends and friendship a part of the conversation with your kids from the get go. We often talk about it when it’s a problem. It’s worth talking about in big and important ways but we should be starting sooner than that.
  • Start: How is it to be a good friend? How important it is to have good friends. Model it. “Mommy is having her playdate today.” “It’s good for you to have parents who are going out on a date tonight.” Normalize it. Social relationships are important to adults too. Not just mindful of making time for our friends to show they are important to us. Not always at the expense of family- but we need to make sure we aren’t always putting friends last. Good for everyone to make friendship a priority.
  • Template for quality relationships across the board. Three buckets. Strong quality relationships with everyone.
  • If we name someone a “best friend” then we are saying something about the quality of that relationship. Brothers can be great friends, for example.
  • Quality matters most. Quantity isn’t as important. If they can find one friend- spend time with that person, lots of chances to find those people.
  • Making friends vs letting go of friends. (1) Getting them to see that this person isn’t a good friend. (2) It’s ok to let go.
  • Friendship circles. Tight inner circle- average of 4. A little bit of a bigger group 10-15. If a relationship is not a healthy one. Shuffle to outer circle. “You don’t have to get your emotional sustenance from that person.” (Demote) Core inner circle have to be rock solid. You don’t have to trust everyone like an inner circle person.
  • Gossip- comes from a need for power. Laying waste to others. Challenging security and confidentiality.
  • Allow your child and the friends to talk in the car together! Listen in to the dynamic.
  • Technology, kids and friendship: Don’t pay attention to quantity- it’s the content and the context that kids are doing on line that matters. There are many ways you can be spending your time. The hysteria is overblown. Young science was overblown. At first, measuring time. Social media use marginally effects wellbeing. Wearing glasses is worse for your psychological wellbeing than screens (depending on what the kids are doing). Reframe how you are thinking about it. Are they using it to have fun with friends? Change your filter. (Just like the monkeys.
  • Your online life tends to mirror your offline life. Being alone in life and on social media then that can be problematic.
  • What we learn about friendship as a young person, it can show how we might handle friendship as we get older.
  • Harvard study- when the men were 80, the thing that best predicated their health and wellbeing was not cholesterol or anything like that- it was how they were with their friends and relationships at age 50. Set up kids to be able to make and maintain friends.

Notable Quotables:

  • “Friendship is as important to your life as diet and exercise.”
  • “Loneliness is the mismatch between the amount of social connection you want and the amount that you have.”
  • “We know how bad loneliness is for us but the flip side is also true. Friendship is good for us. It’s simple and profound.”
  • “There’s no one way to do friendship. Your kid might socialize differently that you do. If you can find settings where your child can be more comfortable and happy, that is really important knowledge. What you want to find is to find the places and the activities that help make kids feel comfortable and confident.”
  • “We talk to kids about achievement, extra curricular activities, time management or organizational skills but we don’t often do the same things for their social skills. And we need to, sometimes. We don’t arrive in this world knowing how to make friends. We arrive with the instinct to want to make friends- and some of us are better at this than others.”
  • “Friends change over the course of our lives and that’s completely normal.”
  • “Make talking about friends and friendship a part of the conversation with your kids from the get go. We often talk about it when it’s a problem. It’s worth talking about in big and important ways but we should be starting sooner than that.”
  • “With friendship, quantity matters some but quality matters most.”
  • “Your online life tends to mirror your offline life.”
  • “Friendship is a skill to be nurtured early and often.”

Resources:

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