You may remember how easy it was to make a new friend in elementary school: share your lunchbox dessert, team up during a game of tag, even discover a classmate shares your same favorite color, and boom…you have a new best friend.
As you get older, friendships become more difficult to navigate. You begin to notice your classmates dividing up into more distinct groups and you may feel yourself pulled in a few different directions. You may also notice that you become closer with a smaller number of friends, and that your friendships become more intimate and lasting.
What you may not realize as you drift toward one group or another is the long-term impact that your high-school friends can have on your life, and that selecting your peer group can be one of the most influential decisions you make in your adolescence.
“At the [high school] age level, we are formulating who we are, developing our value systems,” says Dr. Pam Stern, school psychologist at Donald S. Ray Middle School in Baldwinsville, N.Y. “Some of the choices we make now can stay with us in life.”
As you grow older and pull away from your parents, you start to form your own identity. Your friends are one of the largest pieces of the person you develop into, as they become increasingly important confidants and problem-solvers in your world.
“[Students] have their own dialogue with each other,” Dr. Stern says. “They really influence each others’ mood, what’s acceptable to do and what’s not acceptable to do.”
Students may perceive that certain actions are necessary to be friends with a particular group, and they may start to change their behavior in accord with ways they think they need to act. This process of matching yourself up to your peers can take shape in both negative and positive ways.
On the negative side, studies show that teens’ peer groups have large impacts on whether or not they become involved in harmful behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, unsafe sexual activity, and violence. Behaviors that you know are wrong may seem tempting if they are the norm amongst a certain group of friends, but such habits can have a negative long-term impact on your life, says Dr. Stern.
“If students get into behaviors like drugs or drinking, there are addictive properties there,” Dr. Stern says. “These behaviors are also negative coping patterns.”
Students who develop positive friendships also develop coping patterns, but ones that aren’t likely to harm them later in life: they learn to talk only to someone they trust, for example, when facing a difficult situation. “These patterns can follow students throughout their lives,” says Dr. Stern.
Friends can also influence you to become involved in sports, to start volunteering for a local charity, or to work hard in school—all behaviors that are positively fulfilling and that will help you be successful in the long run.
Benji Richter just finished up his senior year at Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, Ill., and is preparing to embark on his next adventure—a year traveling and studying in Israel—before going to college. He says his high school friends have helped ready him for whatever comes next.
“Three kids in my group of friends are coming to the same trip as me and having them there is a huge comfort,” Richter says. “Even without them, I’m comfortable being in a new environment because I know I have such good friends out there. We’ll all stay in touch and I now have people I can count on for the rest of my life.”
The choice is up to you to develop into the type of person you want to be. As you begin to pull together the different pieces of this person, consider the part of the puzzle that is your friends and surround yourself with people you know will help you develop and reach your goals, not detract from them.