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How Understanding Middle School Friendships Can Help Students With Ups and Downs

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When an accusation like “you don’t care” hurtles an adult’s way, the inner turmoil of adolescence can seem purely excruciating. But these reactions actually stem from a positive force, says Ronald Dahl, who founded the Center for the Developing Adolescent at the University of California, Berkeley: a unique drive to find meaning in life and relationships. And no relationship, parents and educators know well, is as central to the moment-to-moment wellbeing of most tweens and teens as friendship.

“Spending time with their friends isn’t just a pastime,” says Mitch Prinstein, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina. “It’s actually something that they need for their brain development and identity formation. They don’t know who they are until they see themselves through their peers’ eyes. So there is a lot of testing out new roles, new relationships.” It can all be quite stressful.

Think about how crushed young teens can feel when a formerly close friend becomes distant or the shame that can follow disclosure of sensitive information to a mere acquaintance. Knowing what studies show—for example, that humans tend to have frenemies and we often confide intimacies in people we aren’t that close to—can assuage adolescents’ fear of being abnormal. Frank discussions like these are important to have at school, since parents of seventh and eighth graders have been shown to talk to their kids about peer interactions less than parents of elementary-age kids do. Knowing what’s normative can reduce the stress of peer interactions, leaving more bandwidth for learning. In fact, experts estimate that the quality of relationships with peers accounts for 33 to 40 percent of the variance in achievement in middle school.

Characteristics of Healthy Friendships

Among adults, healthy friendships are "voluntary, personal, positive, and persistent,” Lydia Denworth writes in her 2020 book Friendship, “and they usually assume some measure of equality.” Kids should know that they can decide whether to invest in a relationship or not, and there’s a mathematical formula for making that call: “the satisfaction and commitment we derive should be greater than the investment we make and the alternatives we forgo.”

Miriam Romero, a public school teacher in San Francisco, puts it this way to her fifth-grade students: “It’s okay to walk away or take a break from relationships that aren't supportive.”

People make friend connections differently

Yet not all net-positive friendships look the same. Sociologist Sarah H. Matthews of Cleveland State University talks about three distinct styles of friendship: independent, discerning, and acquisitive. Independent people tend to be happy socializing casually with whoever’s around, while “discerning people are deeply tied to a few very close friends,” Denworth explains. The third sort, acquisitive people, “collect a variety of friends as they move through life. They are open to meeting new people, but keep up old relationships, too.”


Humans also “vary in their tendency to introduce their friends to one another,” she reports. Just because a friend wants to hangout with someone else doesn’t mean they don’t value you.

Cliques, or “friend groups” as teenagers call them, differ too. “They can be hierarchical, or they can be roughly egalitarian,” Denworth says. “They can be tightly knit or looser and more porous.”

Media often showcases the discerning style of friendship and close, exclusive groups, making kids long for besties like the ones in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." Informing teenagers that human friendship isn’t like that all the time can ease anxiety that their own ties are inferior.

Friendships are about fit, not feats

For humans of all ages, says Brett Laursen, a child psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University, the research is unequivocal: “Concordance is the foundation of friendship.” Similarity predicts both friendship formation and friendship survival. (Conformity then can be seen as an attempt to both achieve and maintain similarity in order to win and keep friends, respectively.)

In studies, “friends who differed on peer acceptance, physical aggression, and school competence had relationships that ended sooner than friends who were similar on these attributes.” Notice what Laursen, who is also editor in chief of the International Journal of Behavioral Development, isn’t saying. It’s not that rejects, ruffians, and nerds are inherently unlikeable; spending time with them may just be more appealing to other rejects, ruffians, and nerds. Another study extended this concept to “internalizing symptoms,” things like acting anxious, ruminating excessively, and self-consciousness. Those behaviors decreased the longevity of a friendship when only one friend displayed them, but the effect disappeared when both kids struggled. As Laursen put it, “a bad habit is not necessarily a turnoff as long as both friends share the same habit.”

While similarity on undesirable traits shouldn’t be the primary goal in forming friendships—after all, humans of all ages get the most out of pairing with friends who share their positive traits—tweens should understand that doing friendship right is about finding someone who suits you best, not winning over objectively wonderful or high-status peers.

Friendship ambivalence and churn is completely normal

While some friendships are overwhelmingly positive and others clearly negative, “ambivalent ties make up a sizable part of our social world—almost half,” Denworth writes. In other words, frenemies are normal.

What’s more, about half of friend nominations are not reciprocated. Having a best friend who also nominates you as their best friend, one study says, has a positive impact on GPA and increases the feeling of school belonging, which in turn increases motivation, yet having your friend rank someone else as a better friend is also entirely normal.

Friendships that wane are too. In one study, two-thirds of students reported changes in their friends across sixth grade. Another confirmed that only about half of an adolescent’s friendships are maintained over a school year, and in that study, only one percent of friendships formed in seventh grade were still intact by senior year of high school. Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor in Washington, D.C. and author of "Middle School Matters," tells her students: “Every single one of you is going to get rejected at some point, and it’s not because there’s something wrong with you. This is just a time when kids are figuring out how to choose—and be—a good friend.” And that’s true for both girls and boys, researchers report, having found little sex difference in friendship stability.

Part of it, Denworth explains, is that what more mature adolescents require of friends differs from the needs of children and early adolescents: “Play turns into hanging around. Sharing turns into helping. Loyalty and intimacy become more central requirements.” Ms. Romero, the San Francisco teacher, says, “It's very difficult for children who have had the same friends since they were very young to know how to handle it when one or both of them are outgrowing a friendship or both just need different things from the relationship in time.” She does her best to be aware of social dynamics in the classroom, but says, “it’s often important to hear from past teachers, and parents too, to contextualize current relationships.”

Administrators can use this same information to stabilize friendships. Though friendship churn in middle school is to be expected, friendship turnover has been shown to decrease academic functioning. Professor Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA psychologist, theorizes that both losing friends and making new ones takes energy and focus. She says educators who want to see a bump in test scores should consider scaffolding—by, for example, assigning known friends to the same classes and explicitly teaching relationship skills—to reduce friendship instability, especially since, for tweens and young teens, it can mimic the intensity of falling in love and suffering heartbreak.

Spilling tea isn’t the worst thing that ever happened

We all know gossip isn’t just an adolescence thing. (It’s not necessarily an antisocial thing either.) But a child who has spilled the beans about themselves or a friend can feel like they’re the first and worst to do so.

One Harvard sociologist found that humans often confide in people they aren’t that close to, Denworth reports, quoting Mario Luis Small:

One reason we do this is to explicitly avoid our usual intimates. “The guy who has cancer doesn’t want to tell his wife because he doesn’t want to worry her.” . . . Second, people look for others with similar experience or professional expertise. That could be a doctor or a therapist, or a relative stranger. “People favored empathy more than they feared being hurt ….” The third reason is the simplest of all. “They just talked to the person because they were there.”

Kids do have to learn about discernment and loyalty in relationships, but it helps no one for them to hold themselves to superhuman standards.

It can be good to fight

That’s true not just of secret keeping, but fighting too. Scott Gest, professor and chair of human services at the Curry School of Education and Human Development, says conflict between friends often gets a bum rap, but it serves an important developmental function. Research shows that conflicts between reciprocal friends occur just as frequently as between non-friends, he says, but the resolution of conflict between friends tends to be more equitable, because they’re motivated to continue the relationship. These types of skirmishes also lead to “increases in the quality of children’s moral reasoning, presumably because they’re motivated to understand their friend’s point of view,” says Gest.


For young children, likeability is key, but in middle school “it’s not just about the kids you like anymore,” Mitch Prinstein says. Adolescent brains become activated in new ways and neurochemicals make tweens obsessed with the other kind of popularity, status. That’s not necessarily bad news for middle school friendship. “In the United States, status and likability were very distinct attributes—there was only modest overlap between those teenagers high in one quality and those high in the other,” Prinstein writes in the book Popular: “But in China, adolescents who had high status were often also those who were judged to be the most likable.” That means educators should be able to channel this biological imperative for good, by creating a school culture where treating each other with compassion and inclusion has social currency.

Unsurprisingly, when schools successfully do that, “grades go up, attention goes up, wellness goes up, and other school outcomes go up,” Prinstein says. It’s easier said than done though. Laursen recommends a targeted approach with teachers identifying the most influential small friend groups in each class and getting those kids on board with new norms first. “House” programs offer another route to a more inclusive school culture.

When talking directly to tweens and teens about popularity, it’s best to be clear: There are two types of popularity. Those who are likable—who, for example, cooperate, share, ask questions, and listen well—tend to be more successful as adults, growing up to be employed and get promotions, Prinstein says. High-status tweens are more likely to abuse substances and have unsatisfying friendships and romantic relationships as adults. Prinstein boils it down for teens: “The long term outcome of treating other people basically kindly and getting people to like you is more important than getting people to think that you’re cool.”

It will also likely offer them comfort to know that “being disliked in the past will affect us only insomuch as we allow it to dictate how we behave today,” and “we all have an opportunity to become more likable—maybe hundreds of opportunities each day, in fact,” as Prinstein says. And there are upsides to growing up with low status. Research has shown these folks often end up being “perceived by others as more empathetic and more sensitive in social situations.”

Plus, humans don’t all want influential friends. Denworth says some people prefer a lower status friend’s undivided attention while others want to be well-connected. Psychologist Wendy Mogel says pointing that out to teens can validate friendships based on likeability. She also tells parents: “You don't want your kid to be in the tippy-top tier of the social pyramid, as that's a fluid and volatile place to be. They just need one friend they can be themselves with.”

The value of cross-group friendships

Just who that one person is ordinarily depends on proximity and perceived similarity. But friendships across ethnicity, class, and gender have all been associated with better academic outcomes, Juvonen says. Students with friendships that bridge these divides—as well as differences in body size, ability, and sexuality—report lower levels of peer victimization. They’re also more likely to have a complex social identity (e.g., Latina, basketball player, sister, gamer) rather than drawing all of their self-worth from one aspect of themselves.

But even in ethnically diverse middle schools, less than half of sixth-graders have at least one cross-class friendship. Girls are more likely to make cross-class friendships than boys, Juvonen has found, and white students are less likely to do so than all other ethnic groups.

Forming cross-group friendships often depends on shifting the focus from patent similarities to ones that are less so. Author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum recently explained to the New Yorker of her novella "Many a Little Makes": “As I was writing about the girls’ friendship, I was trying to focus more on other sources of commonality, other lines of alliance: being unathletic, liking cake batter, getting one’s period.” Teachers can help move the needle both implicitly, by pointing out less obvious similarities like these, and explicitly, by explaining the data behind the value of friendships based on internal similarities and urging kids to judge each other on actions and attitudes rather than appearance.

Gendered friendship is a construct

One good place to start? Gender. The modern stereotype features women who share their innermost secrets and rally to one another’s side while men stick to sporting events and stiff back slaps. But Denworth lends some historical perspective: “If you consult Aristotle and Montaigne, it was men who believed they were most capable of deep friendship. ‘Men have friends, women have acquaintances,’ went a quote collected in Calcutta ... in the 1960s.”

Contemporary research shows: “Men and women define the importance of friendship in a very similar fashion. They want to have friends who are authentic and loyal and trustworthy equally.” In class discussion, teachers can ask students to think critically about the way social mores influence their friendships. They can also suggest reviving opposite-sex friendships, which get a lot less common around second grade.

Social media and friendship

Remember that status addiction phenomenon? “This predilection seems to be becoming even more pronounced now that teens can enter a social rewards lottery with every mouse click on social media,” Prinstein says. Although more than half of teenagers have made a new friend online, according to a large 2015 survey from Pew, Denworth points to the work of statistician and research scientist Ariel Shensa: “Young adults who had a larger percentage of real-life friends on social media, meaning greater overlap, were less likely to have depression. ‘If we use social media as a tool to extend in-person social relationships, great,’ Shensa says.” But kids should know that online-only friendships are less likely to make the cut after carefully weighing costs and benefits using the friendship formula.

If you’re lonely, you’re not the only one

Eighty percent of adolescents experience loneliness at school, and about 12 percent of 6,000 sixth-graders in one of Juvonen’s studies were not named as a friend by anyone. Students with no friends “receive lower grades and are less academically engaged,” she says. Research has also tied friendlessness and exclusion to truancy, inability to focus, deficits in working memory, and lack of classroom participation.

Teenagers should know the redemptive power of their friendship for these classmates. In one study, Juvonen found that a high quality friendship right at the time of transitioning to high school could protect rejected youth “from engaging in unsupportive behaviors within romantic relationships” down the line. In another one, she concluded that hanging out with a friend who had experienced victimization alleviated a bullied adolescent’s own victimization-related distress. Knowing the power of just one friendship to serve as a buffer that disrupts the connection between loneliness and negative outcomes, may encourage some teenagers to reach out more.

Ms. Romero says, “It’s sad to see how many hands go up” when she asks “who’s experienced something like this,” during a short unit that includes reading the books "My Secret Bully" and "Just Kidding" in preparation for middle school. But, “it is also so powerful to open the Pandora's box on these taboo topics and start to talk about taking control and having agency.”

It’s a shame teachers like her have to improvise, Gest says, but when it comes to adolescents, schools tend to “become very focused on drug use prevention or sex ed, and don’t really focus on the positive dimensions of relating with peers that might actually support those prevention goals.” He sees it as a marketing issue: “If you focus on a middle school curriculum that would build emotional regulation and social relationships, no schools would buy it. If you repackage the exact same curriculum and call it something about drug prevention, it will sell.”

The experts’ bottom line when it comes to teaching about healthy friendship in middle schools?

Just say yes.

This article is part of the “Friendship in Schools” series, which explores the complexities of friendship at various stages of learning.


Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. At various stages of her life she has been considered a reject, ruffian, and nerd. Her daughter was in Miriam Romero’s class at Rooftop School last year.

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