A close relationship of mutual respect, trust, and affection between two or more people.
Friends provide support in three main ways: emotional, cognitive guidance, and tangible help. Friends give each other emotional support by demonstrating care and affection. They also provide guidance during times of decision-making. Friends give help by meeting practical needs, such as loaning a car, cooking a meal, or taking care of a pet while a friend is on vacation. Psychologists have hypothesized that friends are actually coping mechanisms; by providing companionship, support, and resources, friends alleviate stress in a person's life.
The contemporary American view of friendship is a much diluted version of what friendship meant in classical antiquity up through the early modern period in the West. Initially, friendship was regarded as a profound bond between adults, not a phase in childhood development. Such writers as Plato and Cicero wrote treatises on friendship (Plato's Lysis and Cicero's De anicitia) in which they discussed at length why friendship is so important in forming adult character and what qualities one should seek in a friend. These qualities typically included such virtues as honesty, loyalty, courage, and integrity. In the Hebrew Bible, the friendship between David and Jonathan is praised as a model of lifelong loyalty; and in the New Testament, Jesus shows his love for his disciples by calling them his friends.
Second, until comparatively recently, friendship among adults was considered more important than sexual relationships, which is the opposite of the contemporary mindset. The notion that any emotionally deep relationship between people past childhood must have a sexual component is an idea that would have seemed very strange to most Westerners before the popularization of Freud's ideas in the 1920s.
Childhood friendships are considered important today because they mark the child's first steps into the larger world beyond the family; they are particularly significant for only children. One result of past legislation requiring universal childhood education and the abolition of child labor means that most children now have time and freedom to make friendships in school or their neighborhood, and to enjoy being with their friends. Children's friendships are often based on playing in groups and other shared activities; they are typically less aware of their friends as unique individuals than they will be as they grow older. A child's inability to make friends and play with others is often regarded as an early warning sign of autism or another developmental disorder, such as shyness or potentially social anxiety disorder. However, there is a spectrum of sociability in childhood, with some more easily making friends than others, and this can also shift with time and development.
An interesting aspect of childhood friendship is the imaginary friend. It is not unusual for children to have an invisible “friend” with whom they share feelings or conversations. Imaginary friends may be spirits, historical characters, animals, or completely made-up beings. Imaginary friends should not be regarded as a sign of social maladjustment or a mental disorder; over a third of American children report having imaginary friends, and may retain them into early adolescence.
Adolescence is the period when young people's individual personalities take on a clearer outline and they become much more aware of their friends’ unique personalities. This is one reason why friendships formed in adolescence are significantly more likely to last into the adult years than are childhood friendships. Adolescence is also the period when friendship groups can help form character, as adolescent peer groups can exert a strong effect on the teenager's future. Researchers have found that teens are much healthier mentally and physically when their friends are good students, participate in sports and other wholesome extracurricular activities, and avoid drugs and alcohol. Conversely, adolescents who make friends with others who have behavioral problems are likely to get in trouble themselves.
Adolescent friendships are complicated by puberty and sexual development. Teenagers may wonder whether it is possible to be friends with a person of the opposite sex or whether all male/female relationships have to be sexual. Another common problem— rivalry—arises when two “best friends” are both interested in dating the same boy or girl. Last, the formation of cliques—groups of 5–10 teenagers who “hang out together” at the high school level—is sometimes distressing to those who feel excluded from the clique.
Contemporary life is hard on adult friendships in a number of ways. The competitiveness of the job market makes workplace friendships difficult, and the frequency of divorce often means that both former spouses lose the friends they had as a married couple. The frequent moves required by some occupations also strain adult friendships; and the responsibilities of middle adulthood (such as caring for teenage offspring and elderly parents at the same time) often mean that adults have little time to spend with friends and renew their friendships. Nonetheless, most American adults value their close friendships, especially as they age. The death of a spouse and of other friends means that a senior's remaining friends are more precious than ever. Maintaining adult friendships has been found to be a major factor in protecting older adults against physical and emotional frailty.
See also Child development ; Family relationships. Resources
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National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 31 Center Drive, Building 31, Room 2A32, Bethesda, MD, 20892-2425, (800) 370-2943, Fax: (866) 760-5947, NICHDInformation ResourceCenter@mail.nih.gov, http://www.nichd.nih.gov .