High School Awkwardness Echoes A Decade Later, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 28, 2013 1 min read
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Teenagers who have difficulty making and maintaining healthy friendships with peers at age 13 continue to struggle with relationships long after high school, according to a new University of Virginia longitudinal study.

Early secondary school is well-known as the time social pecking orders are established, bullying and gossip proliferates, and kids start seriously thinking about jumping off that bridge if all their friends do. The study suggests that a student’s ability to balance peer pressure with social desirability in early adolescence can predict how well they will handle social relationships in adulthood.

A team of University of Virginia researchers led by Joseph P. Allen, a professor of adolescent research there, followed 150 students from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds from age 13 through age 23, collecting regular reports from the students and their parents, as well as directly observing their interactions with peers.

The researchers found that students who had trouble developing close friendships at age 13 were less able to manage disagreements in romantic relationships a decade later. Moreover, those who were more likely to join in friends’ shoplifting or vandalism as young teenagers had a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse in adulthood.

By contrast, the 13-year-olds who had a good sense of humor and were reported to have high self-control and empathy had both better romantic relationships as young adults and were rated as more successful by their parents at age 23.

“Overall, we found that teens face a high-wire act with their peers,” Allen said in a statement on the study. “They need to establish strong, positive connections with them while at the same time establishing independence in resisting deviant peer influences. Those who don’t manage this have significant problems as much as a decade later.”

“Teaching teens how to stand up for themselves in ways that preserve and deepen relationships—to become their own persons while still connecting to others—is a core task of social development that parents, teachers, and others can all work to promote,” he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.