Parents are always obsessing about peer pressure. And why not? It seems that everywhere we look, there are warnings that kids’ friends can lead them into mischief.
But a new study suggests that the opposite may also be true. Researchers have found that a child's BFF can provide such a strong calming influence that there is actually a measurable effect on stress hormones during tense times.
And that, some experts say, might just lead to cooler heads and better decision making for tweens and teens — a very good thing from the perspective of nervous parents.
“One of the interesting things about these findings is that it’s not just any friend,” said the study’s lead author Ryan Adams, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “It’s the best friend.”
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What that might mean, Adams said, is that the intimacy between best friends is what is buffering them from the stress of upsetting events and experiences. “So with a best friend you might be more inclined to talk about issues that you’d be too embarrassed to talk about with someone who is just a friend,” he explained.
To look at the impact of friendship, Adams and his colleagues rounded up 103 fifth and sixth graders who had a best buddy to hang out with. For each of four school days, the kids were asked to fill out a diary five times. The mission: rate how they felt about what they’d experienced in the previous 20 minutes on a scale that ranged from 1 (very positive) to 7 (very negative).
They were also asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to give researchers a sense of how good the kids felt about themselves at that moment and if they'd been alone or with parents, siblings, a best friend, a boy or girl friend, classmates, strangers, teachers or some other person.
Along with the diary entries, the children were asked to spit into a vial. The resulting sample was then analyzed for the level of cortisol, a potent stress hormone.
While it might not surprise anyone to find that kids were happier in the company of a BFF, it was remarkable to see how the presence of a friend could buffer the physical effects of a negative experience: kids didn’t produce as much cortisol in response to an unpleasant experience when in the company of a best friend. And, they tended to feel better about themselves overall.
When no friend was around during stressful times, cortisol shot up and self-worth plummeted.
The new findings may prompt parents to look at their children’s chums in a different way, said Patrick Tolan, director of Youth-Nex: The University of Virginia Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.
“This may be showing us that we could look at friends as a positive peer pressure,” Tolan said. “The presence of a friend might help children negotiate stressful situations better.”
The whole idea that peer pressure could be a positive force is a new one, Tolan said.
“This is not recognized,” he added. “Right now the focus is on how peer pressure from other kids might get you to take risks or to engage in impulses that might with more maturity be seen as unwise.”
If you’ve got a best friend when things seem dark in your life, you’ve got someone to talk to, Tolan said. And that friend might be a good sounding board with some sensible advice.
“So you might have a kid who feels his parents are hassling him so much that he’s ready to take off. Or one who doesn’t think it’s worth trying any more at school. Or a kid who thinks, ‘I’m going to tell my dad what I really think of him and have it out.’”
In cases like these, a friend in a cooler state of mind might provide a calming influence and sensible suggestions for how to proceed.
“There might be ways to promote that pro-social influence between peers,” Tolan said. “You might suggest that kids ask a friend before they act, for example.”
In other words, there might be an upside to peer pressure.
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