The essence of peer connectedness

From childhood on and, throughout all stages of life, humans seek to be in relationships with others and cultivate their “sense of belonging”. The isolated kindergartner may exhibit signs of sadness, self-doubt, unhappiness and even depression, when he/she feels friendless and lonely. All humans crave and must have relationships to survive and thrive. How can adults facilitate for youngsters the process of befriending others and aid them in the socialization process necessary for emotional, psychological and physical well-being?

Ancient cultures clearly understood that being part of a group offered them the greatest chance of individual survival and that obtaining food, shelter and fending off their enemies were enhanced by their “clan” membership. The association with others provided physical, emotional and survival benefits that were not available to sole individuals.

The same dynamic still exists in our modern society. Though access to shelter, food and warmth are more readily available to most individuals, affiliation with religious, cultural, community and personal friends still provides us with the emotional support during celebrations and hard times and supports our ongoing sense of worth and worthiness throughout life.

Youngsters’ search for group affiliation and connecting with “best friends” helps them feel liked, popular, protected and safe. Carving one’s own “peer family” is earned – not given.

The association with friends continues throughout life and is an anchor during life-changing events. Those who have friends are viewed in a more positive way and are better braced for life’s adversities than those who are alone or lonely.

In his book, “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect” UCLA professor Mathew Lieberman presents research findings that confirm that the human brain has evolved over 250 million years to become “more connected to and more dependent on the social world.” He adds, “What this suggests is that becoming more socially connected is essential to our survival.”

Our culture often discredits teenagers’ obsessive interest and attention paid to friends, dating, social outings and may even label them as “unworthy or unproductive interests.” Yet, professor Lieberman affirms that “Social rewards might be at least as effective as money in motivating workers.” He adds, “When we are rejected or experience other social “pain,” our brains “hurt” in the same way they do when we feel physical pain.”

Thus, the intense social connectedness of adolescents and young adults should be viewed as an essential and beneficial stage of maturation that has proven benefits in growth and development.

If you are a parent of a teenager:

  • Appreciate that social connection, particularly in adolescence, is a formative growth process, regardless of the content of the dialogues.
  • Abstain from discounting your teen’s connection, or even dependence on his/her peers’ opinions and validations.
  • Refrain from denigrating the nature, importance or content of your teen’s conversation with his/her friends.
  • Respectfully support and validate your adolescent’s intense involvement with his/her social group, frequent texting, calling or emailing.
  • Recall the habits of your adolescence and delight in the benefits you have gained through your life-long connections.

 

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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