Peer Relationships

September 21, 2011

Peer relationships are among the most influential means of support for people of all ages and have critical implications for social behavior and development. Among the most commonly referenced peer relationships are friendships. Friendships are voluntary relationships that are rooted in common interests and experiences. In childhood, friendships contribute to the acquisition of social competencies and skills such as cooperation, negotiation, and compromise. Peer relationships often cultivate salient bonds among children and these are strengthened as children learn to communicate effectively with each other, share feelings, become sensitive to others’ needs and concerns, and gain perspective on different points of view. Thus, peer relationships are not only critical to social development but also have significant implications across the life span.

Healthy peer relationships in childhood are believed to be the foundation of future success and positive adjustment in adolescence and adulthood. In fact, friendships and general popularity among peers allow children to develop intimate relationships with others. This intimacy often enables youth to cope more effectively with life’s challenges, manage stress through supportive relationships, and acquire knowledge about close bonds with others. According to research, having approving and encouraging friendships during childhood is associated with increased life satisfaction, good academic adjustment, decreased depression, and increased self-worth. Further, individuals who reported having supportive friendships as children were less victimized by bullies in later youth. Thus, early peer relationships have significant implications for young people’s social and behavioral outcomes.

Changes in peer relationships can also change individual behavior. Shifts may occur through a variety of mechanisms. For example, through imitation and modeling, peers may train each other to abide by or reject social conventions. Research suggests that youth associate with like-minded peers, but it is not clear if children choose peers who are already like themselves, or if they alter their behavior to be more consistent with their peers. Indeed, youth may conform to each other’s belief systems to win acceptance and approval or they may seek out peers with similar values and beliefs. For example, children with high-achieving, studious friends may be influenced to become more invested in their schoolwork, or youth who use illegal substances may seek out peers who also engage in drug and alcohol use. Peer influence increases with child age, but evidence indicates that parents remain important confidants during adolescence. Peer influences can be short lived or may persist throughout development depending on the amount of time peers spend together and the extent to which they are involved in each other’s lives. Peers who spend little time together have less impact on each other.

Poor outcomes have been found among youth whose early peer relationships were problematic. Superficial peer affiliations among children diminish attachment to others and fuel loneliness, which may have deleterious effects on children’s self-worth and selfperception. Children who experience social isolation and detachment tend to be rejected by their peers because they are coy, withdrawn, or even aggressive. These behaviors interfere with acquiring the necessary social skills to establish successful and meaningful relationships. A cyclical pattern emerges whereby children’s socially inappropriate behavior interferes with establishing meaningful friendships, and then the absence of meaningful friendships diminishes these children’s opportunities to interact with others in order to develop more effective social skills. Research indicates that as these children mature, they continue to show important skill deficits and have difficulty fitting into mainstream peer cultures. Furthermore, these children have significant adjustment problems in adolescence and adulthood.

Despite the absence of meaningful positive social interactions with peers, these youth seek out friends and as a result often affiliate with other rejected youth who have similar social deficits. These affiliations pose a significant problem, because they are based on similar experiences of social rejection, marginalization, and alienation. Youth who come together as a function of social rejection and alienation from mainstream culture are at elevated risk for poor outcomes (e.g., delinquency, substance use). For example, children who bully and fight with peers are typically rejected and turn to youth with similar behavior patterns. As these children mature, they may engage in more serious problem behaviors (e.g., fighting with weapons, selling drugs). Thus, the peer group that was founded on a common experience of marginalization may transform into a group of delinquent adolescents (e.g., gang). These networks then reinforce each other through deviant social skills that further contribute to their maladjustment. Indeed, delinquent peer influences are among the most significant predictors of antisocial behavior among adolescents.

In sum, peer relationships contribute in significant ways to the development of social competencies, individual functioning, the capacity for intimacy, and the formation of healthy adult relationships. Youth who experience social rejection and problematic relationships are at elevated risk for behavioral and emotional maladjustment.

SEE ALSO: Adolescence, Youth

Suggested Reading

  • Asher, S. R., & Coie, J. D. (Eds.). (1990). Peer rejection in childhood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bukowski, W. M., Newcomb, A. F., & Hartup, W. W. (1996). The company they keep: Friendship in childhood and adolescence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dishion, T. J., McCord, J., & Poulin, F. (1999). When interventions harm: Peer groups and problem behavior. American Psychologist, 54, 755-764.
  • Erwin, P. (1993). Friendship and peer relations in children. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Schneider, B. (2000). Friends and enemies. London: Arnold.
  • Weisfeld, G. E. (1999). Evolutionary principles of human adolescence. New York: Basic Books.

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