The healing power of friendship
Written by Noel MacNamara
A friend is someone who helps you up when you’re down, and if they can’t, they lay down beside you and listen
Can the friendships and connections that can develop in Intensive Residential Care be nurtured and grown rather than feared?
I would like you to take a moment to think back to your childhood. Think about the important relationships you had. I am sure that many of these relationships were with adults, but I am also sure that many were with other children: brothers, sisters, neighbours, teammates and school friends. Some of these you may still have today.
Friendships are an important part of most of our lives and the evidence indicates that having friends matters considerably to children and young people. Numerous studies have shown how children and young people identify friends as one of the most important aspects of their lives contributing to their happiness, health and well-being. There is Increasing evidence that having friendships as children impacts on adult emotional and mental health.
What are the Benefits of Friendship?
Social connections, such as friendship, create a host of positive benefits. These include the following:
- Better functioning immune system
- Better self-esteem
- Lower rates of anxiety and depression
- Happier, more optimistic outlook
- Longer life expectancy
- Stronger emotional regulation skills
- Improved cognitive function
- More empathy and feelings of trust toward others.
Friendships in childhood are so important that going without it hurts—literally. Brain imaging studies suggests that the same parts of the brain are activated by social rejection as by physical pain. Image how you would feel if your child came home and said that no one wanted to be their friend.
In adolescence, peer friendships are often more important than adults in helping young people move past difficult situations.
Why would it be natural to turn towards your peers as an adolescent? Because that’s on who you’re going to depend on when you leave home. Often, in the wild, a mammal without an adolescent peer group is as good as dead. So connecting with a peer group can feel like a matter of survival
A study by Murdoch and Griffith universities (Uink, Modecki, Barber,2016) found that friendships were particularly helpful for young people immediately after a stressful event, such as failing a test. They also found that young people cope better emotionally when they’re with peers rather than with adults after a stressful event. The young people in the study reported:
- Lower levels of sadness
- Less jealousy
- Not as much worry
- Higher levels of happiness.
In addition, these benefits were even more significant for girls than boys.
The study concluded that:
Being among peers during times of stress may offer adolescents an open, supportive, and rewarding space which may dampen the emotional turbulence that adolescence can bring
What About Friendships and Residential Care?
The young people in residential care have the same need and yearning for reciprocal relationships where they give and take, have fun and explore as all children and young people. However, for these young people, this natural and important social experience of friendship building is often missing or severely curtailed. These young people are separated from their siblings, change placements, schools and locations on a very regular basis. In the Anglicare Children in Care Report Card they found that:
Data shows that only 15% of children/young people in care have regular contact with their siblings. In addition, only 31% have regular contact with their friends outside of school, compared to 54% of children and young people in the broader community.
Think about the young people you care for. How many of them have meaningful friendships?
Within the residential space, relationships between young people are often seen as problematic – a challenge to be overcome rather than a resource to be nurtured and grown.
Residential care is by definition a group experience, but we are in danger of denying the therapeutic potential of the ‘group’ and often instead focus on the dangers young people present to each other. Whether we like it or not young people in residential settings will have relationships with each other. It is natural and developmentally appropriate to turn towards your peers as an adolescent. Connecting with a peer group can feel like a matter of survival. They will happen! However, their capacity to manage these relationships with their internal resources will be limited without the thoughtful and considered help of the therapeutic staff.
Just as happens in a family setting, sometimes the relationships between young people in the residential setting become strained and challenging. But, just as in a family, a residential setting provides a space where it is possible to learn in a scaffolded way how to manage such disruptions safely and engage in the necessary relational repair to mend a rupture in the relationship. These are key skills that can be transferred to other contexts such as, school, sports and community settings were the possibility of alternative friendships exist. Making friends is a time-consuming process and requires a considerable investment. Hall (2018) found that it takes
- 50 hours of time together to move from casual acquaintance to casual friend
- 90 hours to go from casual friend to friend
- More than 200 hours before you can consider someone your close friend
The young people we work with are rarely in other settings for these periods of time.
If we do not actively encourage positive relationships and a culture where young people feel responsible for each other the young people we care for will move into the wider world without the knowledge and skills to build friendships and this will be yet another loss to add to the many they have experienced in their young lives.
We have come to recognise that what is harmed through relationship is best healed through relationship. However, we should not assume that this only happens for young people in their relationships with adults.
As you know in your own life, strength and resilience is developed through friendships and through being responsible for others. This is where we truly learnt to listen, to share our feelings, to understand that conflict is natural and can be overcome positively and that friendships change over time.
The question we need to ask ourselves is how can we unleash the therapeutic potential of young people’s relationships with each other in the ITC setting and allow the young people the joy that we have all experienced in friendship.