A New Study Explains Why You and Your 7th-Grade Best Friend Drifted Apart

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Most middle-school friendships are pretty much doomed to fall apart, according to both the authors of a new study in Psychological Science and anyone who has ever been or known a middle schooler. The researchers, led by Amy C. Hartl of Florida Atlantic University, tracked 410 seventh graders, checking in with the kids once a year, every year, until they were seniors in high school, and found that just one percent of the friendships formed in seventh grade were still intact by the twelfth grade. 

The reason the friendships ended is not so surprising: It seems the kids’ differences eventually drove them apart. Hartl and her co-authors, Brett Laursen of Florida Atlantic and Antonius H. N. Cillessen of Radboud University, examined whether certain individual characteristics — like sex, age, ethnicity, aggressiveness, peer acceptance (popularity, in other words), and academic competence — affected whether a student’s friendship was likely to last into high school. None of those things mattered — that is, a kid who was unpopular in seventh grade was no more likely to experience friendship breakups than a kid who was popular. What mattered, the researchers found, was the differences between the friends — in other words, friendships between the unpopular and popular, or straight-A students and C-students, or boys and girls, were more likely to end. 

It’s always a painful thing when a friendship ends, no matter what age you are, but for middle schoolers it’s especially awful, Hartl argues. These years are a time of huge “cognitive and emotional changes,” she writes, which “elevate the significance of friendships at the same time that growing independence from parents heightens interconnections between friends.” Your friendships mean more to you at this age than they ever did before, and so if (or, more likely, when) they dissolve, it hurts. 

The paper also includes some pretty fascinating statistics on middle-school friendships, culled from previous studies:

  • About half of all friendships formed in middle school (any grade) do not last an academic year.
  • Friendships that are formed in the sixth grade are considered “highly unstable, because primary school friendship groups are transformed across the first year of middle school.”
  • Likewise, friendships that start in eighth grade are also “highly unstable, because most new friendships do not survive the transition into high school.” 

Put another way: If you’ve managed to hang on to pals you met in middle school, a hearty pat on the back to you for beating the friendship odds. 

Why Teenage Friendships End