What is friendship?

Healthy friendships are important at all stages of life.

A famous quote, commonly attributed to William Shakespeare, defines a friend as "one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become and still, gently allows you to grow.”

Building friendship skills starts early. Zero to Three recommends that young children need opportunities to practice sharing, taking turns and resolving conflict as they begin enjoying budding friendships. They learn best through adult coaching skills like helping others, noticing other’s feelings and pointing out how their actions affect others. “I see you took the car away from Mario. I wonder how that made him feel?”

According to MSU Extension’s Building Strong Adolescents Program, parents of teens should help them learn that genuine friendships involve two or more people who understand and respect each other; care about and are supportive of each other; expect good from each other and solve problems together without blame or manipulation.

The Search Institute is a nonprofit organization that promotes positive youth development and encourage the importance of positive friendships in adolescence. Positive friendships help teens develop interpersonal skills which include empathy, sensitivity, conflict resolution and cultural competence to name a few.

Not all friendships are good for you. The Family Planning National Training Center has developed a Healthy Relationship Wheel that describes healthy friendships qualities such as trust, support, honesty, accountability and respect. They also include a table that describes a guide to what constitutes a healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationship. For example, a healthy relationship means both parties are respectful, trusting and honest. An unhealthy includes not respecting other’s feelings or personal boundaries, not trusting each other and telling lies. An abusive relationship includes physical and verbal mistreatment of one or both, isolation, control and denial of abuse.

There are many ways to define friendships, mostly geared toward helping children and teens learn how to make and keep healthy friendships. Although these focus on lessons we learn growing up, it may be helpful to look at our current adult friendships and other intimate relationships with the same lens as we teach our children.

Not everyone we know is considered a friend. Most people are acquaintances that you either admire or not. And there is a difference between being a friend and being friendly and respectful with someone.

As human beings, we are driven toward social interactions. How much interaction we crave can be impacted by our personality, or whether we consider ourselves introverted or extroverted. Introverts tend to enjoy and thrive on spending time alone or with small groups of people. They may be satisfied with one or two close friends. Extroverts on the other hand enjoy and seek out social interaction and are generally outgoing. They may list a multitude of people they consider close friends.

So how many friends do you really need? It may be more about quality than quantity. Whether you, as an adult, have one or two best friends or even a gaggle of friends, take some time to re-evaluate what it means to have healthy friendships. Give yourself permission to let unhealthy friendships fade into the background of your life. In addition, like a gardener, take time to nurture and grow the friendships that contribute to your happiness (and theirs). 

For more information about building strong relationships, visit MSU Extension's Healthy Relationships website.

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