Friendship helps kids overcome challenges and be more active

The many benefits of friends.
The many benefits of friends. Photo: Getty

Sometimes we get by with a little help from our friends.

While we don't need Beatles lyrics to know friendship is good for our kids, we do need science to help us understand the range of benefits a best friend can offer.

And it seems there are more than previously thought.

New research from the British Journal of Psychology found having a best friend can help disadvantaged children from poor neighbourhoods overcome challenging circumstances.

The study authors surveyed 409 students between the ages of 11 and 19 from poor socioeconomic backgrounds about how their closest friendship helped them cope with problems and unfavourable experiences.

While previous research into an adolescent's resilience to hardships has focused on the support from the individual's family, this study discovered close friendships are a major influence as well.

"Boys' and girls' best friendships are an important source of meaning and strength in the face of substantial adversity," said lead researcher Rebecca Graber M.D., a psychologist from the University of Sussex.

She found friends are able to offer emotional support and provide more positive outlooks on problems.

But your child doesn't have to be experiencing struggles to reap the benefits of friendship. 

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Friends can also influence kids to exercise, according to recent research from the American Heart Association.

In this study, 104 children and teens were asked to rank 10 potential benefits and 15 possible barriers to physical activity.

The most common barriers included feeling self-conscious, lack of enjoyment, poor health, lack of self-discipline and lack of energy.

The researchers compared children who said their family encouraged them to be active and those who said their family and friends did physical activities with them.

Children and teens who exercised or played actively with a friend were far less likely to mention barriers for not exercising, while family participation or encouragement lacked this effect.

"Clinically, much of the focus on increasing physical activity involves engaging the family and encouraging the patient to be more active, but this study suggests that encouragement may not be sufficient," said study author Jessica Graus Woo, an associate professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Centre in Ohio.

"Having physically active friends may make it easier for obese children to get involved with activities and lower the perceived barriers for doing so, while having a physically active family may not be as inspiring".

Other studies have shown that friends can also be advantageous academically.

While being distracted in the classroom by friends is obviously not beneficial, children entering first grade have been found to have better school attitudes if they already have friends and are successful at both keeping old friends and making new ones.

As they grow up into teenagers, they are less likely to experience psychological problems when school changes and transitions occur if they have friends to reach out to.

Friends help people grow, develop social skills and interact with the world, child psychologist Rachelle Theise said.

"Friendships are critical to helping children improve their communication, sharing, empathy, problem-solving, and creativity".

If your little one is having some trouble making friends, there are a number of ways you can help him or her connect with other children who have similar interests and principles.

If you suspect shyness is the issue, Dr Theise suggests planning play dates in a familiar environment like in the home, so they feel more comfortable and less overwhelmed. Maintain a presence at first so that you can offer support, and make sure play dates have a beginning and end time so that they don't become anxious with uncertainty.

Dr Theise also suggests reading and talking about friendship, playing games that teach your child to empathise, care and consider other perspectives, and always encourage and praise them when they exhibit social skills.

Many parents can relate to their child having had at least one friend who is a ringleader when it comes to mucking up and while it's important to ensure our children aren't yielding to negative peer pressure, it might be just as important to acknowledge the friends who are positive influences.