The 3 Rules of a Healthy Friendship—For Kids and Adults

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Whether you’re a kid or an adult, friendship is nuanced. And these days, it requires more care and attention than ever. On a recent episode of Mom Brain, the hit podcast about parenting, co-hosts Daphne Oz and Hilaria Baldwin talk with Lydia Denworth, science journalist and the author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, about why it’s so critical. Denworth also details the rules of a healthy friendship and the exact age range when kids start to need friendship more than their parents.

1. The 3 Rules of Real Friendships

Hilaria Baldwin: What are the rules or guidelines for a really healthy friendship?

Lydia Denworth: There are three things: The first is that the relationship is long-lasting. Somebody is a stable and reliable presence in your life. Two, it needs to be a positive relationship, so it makes you feel good. The third is that it’s cooperative and there is some form of reciprocity and give-and-take. It’s about your ability to be there for your friends.

[These guidelines also work] in terms of our other relationships. Do your relationships with your romantic partners or your biological relatives fit this description? Do they make you feel good? Do they feel like steady, reliable people in your life? Are they helpful? Is there back-and-forth and give and take? If there is, we call them our friends.

2. Adult Friendship Is Designed for Difficult Times

Hilaria Baldwin: This is such a busy time for parents. By the end of the day, I just don’t want to talk anymore. I’m not communicating that much with my friends right now, which is hard. I miss them. And when I do talk to them, it makes me feel so much better. Still, it’s hard to make the effort during this time.

Lydia Denworth: I completely understand. Some of what we’re doing online to connect during COVID is working for people and some of it isn’t. Or some of it worked at the beginning and now it’s getting old. My strong suggestion is going to be that you try to find a different part of the day [to reach out]. For example, I’m doubling up when I go for a morning walk. I might call a friend then and talk then. Or I might do it during a grocery shopping run that week. I’ll call a friend while I’m driving in the car. I’m trying to utilize “found” moments. It’s not the same as the friends back in Brooklyn that I would regularly get together with for dinner or a drink—we’re obviously not doing that—and the group Zoom thing can get kind of old, but your friends are a critical piece of getting you through a time like this.

[You also need to] be forgiving with your friends about what they can give you and what you can give them. As for friends that don’t have kids, they really are in a very different place—there’s no question about it. So, connection has to come from two things: 1. They need to try hard to understand what’s going on in your life as a mom, but 2. you also do need to try to find some moment in your day to reach out to them. Because I really do think it will make you feel better.

3. There’s an Exact Neurological Moment When Kids Start Choosing Their Friends Over Their Parents

Daphne Oz: My oldest is at the point where her friends really matter to her and she really likes them and misses them. I’m curious if you have thoughts on navigating COVID and isolation with children who are still figuring out what it means to be a friend?

Denworth: When your kids are very young, the parent is the primary social partner and you’re really helping to develop their social brain. We always think about how we’re teaching them to walk and talk and read and that’s all true, but you are also teaching them what it is to be social. Ultimately, you’re trying to start them on the path to help them learn what it is to be a friend.

But then they have to get the next step, which is understanding peer-to-peer relationships and how to cooperate with a group and how to navigate a more complicated social situation. That starts to happen when kids get to school and when they hit, say middle school. From a neuroscience perspective, adolescence runs from the age of 10 to 25. It’s not just the teenage years. And puberty is the critical moment.

Kids shift their focus from their parents to their friends through something called “social buffering.” This is the power that parents and caregivers—usually moms—have to calm a kid down and reduce their stress levels. A lot of studies about stress use the same experiment because apparently the things that stress us out are very similar. (It’s public speaking and math problems.) So, you have a 10-year-old doing a math problem and mom is in the room. The kid’s cortisol levels and stress levels come down [during childhood]. But when they cross puberty, mom doesn’t have that power anymore. Quite literally, your parent is out of your hypothalamus.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more from Lydia Denworth, listen to her recent appearance on the Mom Brain podcast with Hilaria Baldwin and Daphne Oz. Subscribe now or follow us on Instagram @mombrain.

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