The Curious Case of High School Friendships

Words: Maryam Elhabashy

As another year comes to an end, another class of seniors are off to college and another class of freshmen wait in the wings to make their Eagle debut. What an eventful year it’s been! The Home of the Eagles is now the proud nest of the reigning State Basketball Champions, for the first time ever! And the tennis team won back the County Cup, after a fourteen-year dry spell! There’s not enough room to try to list all of the Eagles’ academic accolades! These achievements will not soon be forgotten. There is one thing, however, that counter intuitively tends to fall victim to abandonment when high school ends- friendships.

What is a BFF? In 1997, millions of people learned what it meant, when on an episode of the TV show “Friends,” Phoebe explained that BFF means “best friends forever.” High school provides the most opportune environment for the establishment of these BFFs. Really. It’s a scientific fact.

In a 2003 research article entitled “Best friends forever? High school best friendships and the transition to college,” Deborah L. Oswald and Eddie M. Clark give the reasons for such strong high school bonds, and the benefits that these bonds provide.

High school is what they call the “focus activity,” that gives the context for these relationships. Though the high school workload can be heavy, there are a multitude of sports programs, clubs, and extracurricular events through which solid, meaningful connections are made. It is during the high school years that kids really start to forge their own paths, spending more time with their peers than their parents. They start experimenting with who they are, and develop social skills. Friendships provide “social support, give a sense of belonging, and shape beliefs.”

A high school friend understands the pressure you feel about your grades, can empathize when your parents take your phone away, and are more willing to share their clothes with you than most siblings are. In some cases, their shoulders are better to cry on than a member of the family. A BFF can become family.

In fact, Oswald cites another study that concludes that adolescents “need the special support offered by a best friend.” It states that the best friendships provide “acceptance, respect, trust, intimacy, enjoyment, spontaneity, stability, and self-disclosure and opportunities.”

That’s A LOT of important “stuff” one gains from a best friend. So how and why does the “Best” and “Forever” fall off so easily when kids go off to college?

Well, in many cases the social context changes. The school as “focus activity” is in a new state, or consists of thousands of people instead of hundreds. College is also like the second step of experimentation in becoming an adult. Some kids just add new layers to who they are, while others want to change entirely- shed who they were in high school and be someone new. That means new social settings, new activities, and new friends.

I think we students all kind of understand this part. It’s what makes college so exciting. It’s not just the academic opportunities, but the social opportunities. The research article states that 97% of college students say they find a new “closest” friend within the first month of college. However, the majority of these friendships do not last for the full first year.

In fact, the article reports that students who are “preoccupied with the potential loss of pre-college friends report emotional distress, decreased satisfaction with college friends, loneliness, and college maladjustment.” So that first year of new friends can be extremely hard, but it’s almost inevitable (I’ll explain in a minute).

Though the science may lead us to the conclusion that most high school friendships are non-existent by the time college is over, I would hope that some of us can be the anomaly. I mean, the science is also telling us that the first year of college would be a lot easier on you if you can hold on to some of those meaningful high school relationships, that provide stability and security.

Oswald and Clark identified four types of behaviors that maintained friendships: interaction, positivity, supportiveness, and self-disclosure. In detail, these are: doing things together, being positive and making the friendship enjoyable, supporting the friend and the friendship with emotional support, and having meaningful communication, such as sharing private thoughts.

I know that it’s perfectly acceptable to think that teenagers can’t have meaningful relationships or don’t really know how to do so. That perhaps they are too immature to commit to such serious ideas. It’s the “that’s SO high school” comment. But I disagree. If we can roll through AP classes, or lead teams to victories, or create fantastic art projects, or devote time to community service- we can have long-lasting, mature friendships. Keep the BFFs to our own benefit. Of course, the friendships will change over time. Instead of borrowing a pair of sweatpants, maybe it’ll be a blender you’ll be borrowing (and hopefully, returning). Or the selfie of you and your friends at some concert will become you and your friends sharing a job promotion celebration.

I guess the bottom line is that wanting to experiment and have new social experiences are a great thing, and something to be excited about. But I hate to think that we can’t have or benefit from these new experiences without ditching the friendships we’ve built over time. In fact, I’d argue that these new experiences would be more valuable with our BFFs by our sides. I’ve still got a couple of years before I test the science out for myself, but I’d like to think that I’m creating lifelong friends.

Best friendships are a personal investment. Best friends know things about you that maybe your parents don’t even know. And they are still your best friends through it all. The personal connections we make are arguably as valuable as the high school diploma that we receive. The diploma signifies our ability to work hard and excel in academics. The friendships are intangible, irreplaceable pools of memories and experiences that not only mold who you are, but can continue to mold the shape of who you will become.

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