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What to Look for in Friendships: Pre-Adolescents and Teens

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

We’ll start this article by saying the qualities of friendship we discuss here are not exclusive to people in recovery from mental health, alcohol, or substance use disorders. These qualities of friendship are nearly universal – with some cultural variation and minor differences based on social norms in various countries or regions, of course. Teens can look for these qualities in the friendships they currently have: they’re not ambiguous or elusive. If they’re present in a relationship, they’re easy to identify.

Once they have an idea of what to look for, they can use this information to decide whether their current friendships embody these qualities, or not. Then they can use the same information to decide whether they need to seek, initiate, and cultivate friendships where these qualities are present, if their current friends do not offer them. Ultimately, a teen in recovery can use the information here to decide whether their relationships are supporting – or interrupting – their life in recovery.

Why?

Because during adolescence, friends can be everything. Making friends outside the family, developing relationships with new people from different backgrounds, deciding who to connect with and who to avoid are essential parts of the stage of adolescent development known as differentiation.

Building life-affirming, supportive friendships is an important part of life for anyone – child, adolescent, or adult – but for teens in recovery, a solid, reliable, and loving network of friends can make a big difference in their daily happiness. Some friends can help teens in recovery make progress in their recovery, whereas others can stymie, interrupt, or even actively – consciously or unconsciously – undermine the progress a teen in recovery makes.

This article is designed to help teens in recovery evaluate their friendships and make their own decisions about who they want in their lives, and who they don’t.

What the Experts Say About Friendship

An article in Psychology Today identifies a list of traits considered essential to friendship. These traits fall into three general categories:

  • Integrity. Traits of integrity include trustworthiness, honesty, dependability, and loyalty.
  • Caring. Traits of caring include empathy, being non-judgmental, the ability to listen, and being supportive in good times and bad.
  • Congeniality. Traits of congeniality include self-confidence, being fun to be around, and the ability to see the humor in life.

Granted – two elements of that last point, congeniality – are a little bit odd: certainly, friends need to be fun to be around and have an ability to see the humor in life. However, fun is not everything, and sometimes, rather than humor, a true friend needs to be there to recognize the hard, dark parts of life as well, and not brush them – or the feelings of a teen living with difficult emotions associated with an emotional disorder – under the rug as if they don’t exist.

Those are the core traits of friendship, and we think that’s a good list. And while parts of the congeniality trait may appear relatively Pollyannaish, we agree wholeheartedly with the idea that friends should, in the end, bring joy and humor to life.

Now that we’ve established the broad parameters of friendship, as defined by experts, we’ll move on discuss a questionnaire widely accepted by mental health professionals and the most reliable assessment of friendship quality available: The Friendship Qualities Scale (FQS) developed by Bukowski, Hoza, and Boivin in 1994.

Measuring Friendship Quality: The FQS Scale

The FQS breaks down friendship qualities into five categories:

Companionship

This category of friendship refers to participating in shared activities with friends that are fun, exciting, rewarding, and stimulating. Companionship most often involves shared activities, but can also mean simply being together, with no specific shared activity occurring. Friends are friends when things are exciting, and when things are, for lack of a better word, boring.

Conflict

This category of friendship refers to how two people in a friendship handle conflict. Is there a lot of conflict? Can you argue and make up? Does an argument cause real tension? Is it serious or playful? Are you sure you’re still friends even when you’re mad at one another? Friends can have conflicts and still be friends: this is an important lesson.

Help

This refers to the level of tangible, practical assistance a friend offers in times of need. For teens, this might mean assistance with studying, lending a hand with household chores, or offering time and energy to accomplish a task that has to be accomplished. Friends help one another out with whatever they need.

Security

This is similar to help, but with an emotional element. Security means the comfort and support provided by a friend in unusual, threatening, or frightening situations. Again, this typically refers to emotional, rather than physical safety. A friend is someone a teen can go to when they’re nervous, anxious, feeling depressed, or otherwise out of sorts – and know they’re in a safe place to talk, as well as be seen and heard.

Closeness

is similar to both help and security. It contains an element of intimacy, however, that’s distinct. When a teen feels truly close to someone, they’re confident they can share deep, personal secrets – with complete and unflinching honesty – and know with one hundred percent certainty those conversations will be respected and kept private and confidential.

Those are the components child and adolescent experts use to measure the quality of friendships in early life. Next, we’ll offer the questionnaire itself.

Friendship Qualities Scale: The Test

Respondents answer this test with the Likert Scale, with which almost everyone is familiar. The Likert Scale measures levels of agreement with direct assertions in the following manner:

  • Strongly Disagree
  • Disagree
  • Undecided
  • Agree
  • Strongly Agree

According to the creators of the test, the higher the score the higher the quality of the friendship in question. Disclaimer: there’s an elusive, undefinable element to friendship that will never be found in a test. With that said, the validity and accuracy of this test has been verified countless times over the past two decades in child and adolescent populations. While what defines friendship is indeed subjective, consistency from the subjects themselves – i.e. the people taking the test – confirm the practical utility of this assessment.

Are you ready to take the test, and determine the quality of your current friendships, as measured by the FQS?

Here’s the test:

The Friendship Quality Scale

(Bukowski, Hoza, and Boivin, 1992)

  1. My friend and I spend all our free time together.
  2. I can get into fights with my friend.
  3. When I forget my lunch or needed a little money‚ my friend will loan it to me.
  4. When I have a problem at school or at home‚ I can talk to my friend about it.
  5. If my friend had to move away‚ I would miss him/her.
  6. My friend thinks of fun things for us to do together.
  7. They can bug me or annoy me even though I ask him/her not to.
  8. My friend helps me when I’m having trouble with something.
  9. If there is something bothering me‚ I can tell my friend about it even if it is something I cannot tell to other people.
  10. I feel happy when I am with my friend.
  11. My friend and I go to each other’s houses after school and on weekends.
  12. We can argue a lot and it’s okay.
  13. My friend would help me if I needed it.
  14. If I said I was sorry after I had a fight with my friend‚ he/she would still stay mad at me.
  15. I think about my friend even when my friend is not around.
  16. Sometimes my friend and I just sit around and talk about things like school‚ sports‚ and things we like.
  17. My friend and I disagree about many things.
  18. If other kids were bothering me‚ my friend would help me.
  19. If my friend or I do something that bothers the other one of us‚ we can make up easily.
  20. When I do a good job at something‚ my friend is happy for me.
  21. My friend would stick up for me if another kid was causing me trouble.
  22. If my friend and I have a fight or argument‚ we can say “I’m sorry” and everything will be alright.
  23. Sometimes my friend does things for me‚ or makes me feel special

Add up your scores: how does the friendship you’re referring to stack up? Remember: according to this scale, the higher the number or your totaled answers, the higher the quality of the friendship. So, if you did this with your best friend in mind, what was the result?

That’s for you to know.

And act on, if necessary.

Your Part in Friendship

Friendship is, if anything, a two-way street. The assessment above, and the qualities of friendship mentioned toward the beginning of this article cover two areas: general friendship traits and specific things about specific friends. Which means they’re not really about you – if you’re a teen reading this article. They’re about ideas, and they’re about other people – but there’s more to friendship than that: there’s you.

Research shows that having a robust network of friends can have a significant impact on positive teen development. Through friends, teens develop social skills, learn about intimacy outside the family, develop an individual identity, and motivate teens to participate in extracurricular activities. In addition, further research indicates that quality friendship has a positive impact on teen well-being, self-esteem, emotional resiliency, and can help reduce depressive symptoms in teens diagnosed with depression.

That’s why friends are important, especially for teens living with any type of substance use, emotional, or behavioral disorder.

We’ll end with an interesting assessment, designed by the author of the Psychology Today article we quoted in the opening of this article. If you’re a teenager, these questions are for and about you: they’ll help you take care of your side of the friendship street and show you where you can improve – if you need to improve at all.

Friendship Self-Assessment

I am…

  1. Trustworthy.
  2. Honest.
  3. Dependable.
  4. Loyal to people I care about.
  5. Easily able to trust others.
  6. Able to experience and express empathy for others.
  7. Able to be non-judgmental.
  8. A good listener.
  9. Supportive of others in their good times.
  10. Supportive of others in their bad times.
  11. Self-confident.
  12. Usually able to see the humor in life.
  13. Fun to be around.

Score this assessment with the Likert Scale, as above. The higher your score, the more likely it is you’ll be able to form high-quality, lasting, and supportive friendships. And if you’re in recovery, you can use this assessment to learn about what parts of yourself you might need to work on if you want to expand your group of friends.

Finally, with all that said, we want to encourage you to circle back to the top of this article and revisit the traits of friendship we introduced that are associated with caring: empathy, being non-judgmental, the ability to listen, and being supportive in good times and bad. All the other qualities are important, without a doubt. However, we firmly believe that the caring traits – if we can identify the most important traits to look for in a friend – are indeed the most important.

When you find a friend who listens, doesn’t judge, is empathetic, and supports you through the good times and bad – then yes, that person is a real, quality friend. And when you can do that for someone else, that means you’re being a good friend.

It probably means something else, too: we bet it’s an indication you’re making real progress in your recovery.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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