The University of Maine


Calendar  |  Campus Map  | 

About UMaine | Student Resources | Prospective Students
Faculty & Staff
| Alumni | Arts | News | Parents | Research

 President's Messagedivision
 Student Focusdivision
 Lasting Impressiondivision
 UMaine Foundationdivision
 On the Coverdivision

October / November 2001

 Current Issuedivision
 About UMaine Today
 Past Issues
Subject Areasdivision
 UMaine Home



One Best Friend

Photo by Monty Rand

One Best Friend
Children's friendships are training grounds for adult relationships

About the Photo: Childhood friendships are not simply child's play but powerful predictors of social adjustment in adulthood.

Links Related to this Story

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 friendships.

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 parents.

"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 psychological adjustment.

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, including marriage.

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 1011, 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 transition.

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 friendships.

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 measure.

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 adept kids.

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 Nangle.

by Margaret Nagle
October-November, 2001

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


UMaine Today Magazine
Department of University Relations
5761 Howard A. Keyo Public Affairs Building
Phone: (207) 581-3744 | Fax: (207) 581-3776

The University of Maine
, Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System