One Best Friend
Children's friendships are training grounds for adult relationships
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Childhood friendships are not simply child's play but powerful
predictors of social adjustment in adulthood.
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All it takes is one best friend to
stave off the loneliness and depression of a child — even if that
youngster is considered an outsider with the "in crowd" of peers,
according to University of Maine psychologists studying childhood
The key is in helping children to establish high-quality friendships
that provide validation, intimacy, companionship and conflict resolution
skills. Such intervention, the researchers say, begins with involved
"Even if a child is not accepted by the larger group, one close
friendship can serve as a buffer to loneliness and depression," says
Cynthia Erdley, UMaine associate professor of psychology. "We know that
children who are rejected by their peer group are at risk for a variety
of negative outcomes that have implications for their psychological
adjustment as adults. More recent studies are beginning to uncover
similar risks for children who fail to develop close friendships. For
instance, children without friends appear to be at increased risk for
depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. However, many questions remain
about just how friendship impacts adjustment."
The dynamics of children's friendships
Since the early '70s, when researchers became interested in group
acceptance, it has been recognized that childhood friendships are not
simply child's play but powerful predictors of social adjustment in
adulthood. Yet through the years, studies have focused on children's
group acceptance and popularity as primary determinants of future
psychological adjustment, leaving childhood friendships an understudied
area. The complex interrelationships between peer acceptance, friendship
and adjustment are not adequately understood.
In their research, Erdley and Douglas Nangle, associate professor of
psychology, are looking beyond the traditional theories of peer
acceptance to explore the dynamics of children's friendships — and the
very definition of friendship among youngsters.
Prominent theorists William Bukowski of Concordia University, Betsy Hoza
of Purdue University and William Hartup of the University of Minnesota
contend that, in order to better understand the role and importance of
children's friendships, the definition of friendship must be expanded. A
recent study by Nangle and Erdley was one of the first to explore this
premise by focusing on the potential contributions of peer acceptance,
having more than one friend, and friendship quality to children's
The UMaine researchers have edited a new book on the subject, The Role
of Friendship in Psychological Adjustment. Nangle and Erdley, with
UMaine doctoral students Julie Newman and Erika Carpenter, write of
their pioneering research that examines how the various levels of
friendship, as well as peer acceptance, relate to a youngster's
psychological development. In the book, they are joined by some of the
world's leading friendship researchers in addressing the impact of
pre-adolescent friendship and peer status on early adulthood adjustment;
peer relationships and specialized interventions for children with
attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; and the drawbacks of
traditional group intervention for antisocial youth.
Learning what it means to be a friend
For the last 20 years, clinicians have looked at rejection by a peer
group as a significant problem. It is widely recognized that children's
friendships are the training grounds for important adult relationships,
Most often, the therapeutic goal has been to make the child more
accepted by the peer group at large, says Nangle, a clinical child
psychologist whose research focuses on child/adolescent peer relations
and behavior therapy. However, singling out anti-social children often
serves to further alienate them from their peers.
One answer may be taking intervention and prevention measures with the
peer group rather than individual youths in trouble. At UMaine, a new
study by Ph.D. student Erika Carpenter is exploring the value of
formalized social skills training as part of a school curriculum. Her
research focuses on what has become a steady stream of preschoolers in
Head Start being referred for psychological counseling because of
aggression and other forms of inappropriate behavior.
With this kind of intervention, the hope is that children will have
improved behavior and greater interest in school, better academic
performance, increased likelihood of staying in school and higher peer
acceptance, Carpenter says.
Close friendships among children are characterized by affection, a sense
of reliable alliance and intimacy — the sharing of secrets and personal
information. The experience of having a friend in which to confide can
promote feelings of trust and acceptance, and a sense of being
understood. As a result, friendship mediates the link between acceptance
and loneliness, say Erdley and Nangle.
Unlike close friendships, peer group acceptance offers children a sense
of inclusion. Both social relationships offer nurturing and self-worth.
But while peer acceptance influences children's feelings of belonging,
friendships directly affect feelings of loneliness, says Erdley, whose
research focuses on social cognitive processes or the thoughts that
underlie youngsters' social behavior.
The relationship between friendship and adjustment
The younger the children, the more on-again, off-again their friendships
and group acceptance. But by ages 10–11, patterns of acceptance,
friendship and psychological adjustment begin to gel.
This also is a time of transition from elementary to middle school.
UMaine doctoral student Julie Newman is studying how the quality and
quantity of children's friendships during this often tumultuous period
can mean the difference between a smooth or rocky adjustment to this
If peer friendship is found to be an important variable in children's
middle school adjustment, it may be a component to add to programs
preparing them for middle school. Such an intervention could be
particularly pertinent to those children with poor peer relations who
face the prospect of getting even more "lost in the crowd," Newman says.
During these transitional years for children, intimacy becomes more
important in peer relations, especially between girls. By adolescence,
it is estimated that 70 percent of teens report having stable
Currently, Nangle and Erdley are conducting research on the
developmental differences in peer experiences and psychological
adjustment. They are exploring the hypothesis that, when it comes to
adjustment, acceptance is more important in childhood and friendship is
critical in adolescence.
The relationship between friendship and adjustment is a complicated one,
says Nangle. "There are times when friendship is not a good thing.
Children who get involved in more deviant peer networks are clearly at
increased risk for poor outcomes," he says.
Studies by University of Oregon clinical psychologist Thomas Dishion and
others are urging caution when using traditional intervention programs
that put high-risk youth together. Because the impact of friendship
isn't always positive, group treatment of high-risk adolescents can
produce unintended consequences as a result of peer influence.
Good friendships don't just happen
Researchers stress that positive adult and family involvement in the
lives of adolescents continues to be the most effective intervention
Good friendships don't just happen. It is important for parents to play
an active role, say Nangle and Erdley. Studies show an association
between parental involvement in arranging children's peer contacts, and
the social and academic adjustment of preschoolers and kindergartners.
Parents who arrange play dates, enroll their children in structured
activities, and monitor peer interactions appear to have more socially
Warning signs that children may be lacking close friends include being
unable to name specific close friends (or naming kids not really their
friends), lack of incoming calls or invitations from peers, hanging out
with friends who are significantly older or younger, and lack of regular
peer contacts outside of school.
Though direct parental involvement should trail off as children develop,
the need for monitoring remains. Knowing who children's friends are,
where children are and what they are doing is important. Good
communication and helping children negotiate problems in friendships
also help, add Erdley and Nangle.
"As parents are increasingly pulled from the home by work and other
demands, the question is what will become of the close parental
monitoring of peer interactions that used to be more commonplace," says
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.