PEER INTERACTIONS, RELATIONSHIPS, AND GROUPS
KENNETH H. RUBIN, WILLIAM M. BUKOWSKI, JEFFREY G. PARKER AND
JULIE C. BOWKER
Rubin, K.H., Bukowski, W., Parker, J., & Bowker, J.C. (2008). Peer interactions,
relationships, and groups. In Damon, W. & Lerner, R. (Eds), Developmental Psychology: An
Advanced Course. New York: Wiley.
The writing of this manuscript was supported, in part, by a grant from the National Institute
of Mental Health (# MH58116) to Kenneth H. Rubin and by grants from the Social Sciences
and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur
la Société et la Culture to William M. Bukowski.
PEER INTERACTIONS, RELATIONSHIPS, AND GROUPS
Experiences with peers constitute an important developmental context for children wherein
they acquire a wide range of behaviors, skills, and attitudes that influence their adaptation
during the life span. In this chapter, we review current research on children’s peer
experiences while distinguishing between processes and effects at different levels of analysis
-- namely individual characteristics, social interactions, dyadic relationships, and group
membership and composition. Our thesis is that interactions, relationships, and groups
reflect social participation at different interwoven orders of complexity. Our goal, in
introducing these levels of analysis, is to establish a framework for further discussion of the
origins, development, and significance of children’s peer experiences. Moreover, discussion
of the interaction, relationships, and group levels of social complexity allows subsequent
commentary on conceptual issues that pertain to individual differences in children’s
behavioral tendencies and peer relationships.
INTERACTIONS, RELATIONSHIPS, AND GROUPS: ORDERS OF
COMPLEXITY IN CHILDREN’S PEER EXPERIENCES
Over the past 25 years, recognition and articulation of the multiple levels of analysis and
perspectives that comprise the peer system have greatly increased. Especially significant in
this regard has been the contribution of Robert Hinde (e.g., 1987, 1995) who has articulated
the features and dialectical relations between successive levels of social complexity.
Borrowing heavily from Hinde, in this section we discuss the nature of three successive
levels of complexity in children’s experiences with peers—interactions, relationships, and
The simplest order of complexity of peer experience involves interactions. Interaction refers
to the social exchange between two individuals. Behaviors that simply (and only)
complement one another (like riding on either end of a teeter-totter) would ordinarily not be
considered true interaction unless it was clear that they were jointly undertaken. Instead, the
term interaction is reserved for dyadic behavior in which the participants’ actions are
interdependent such that each actor’s behavior is both a response to, and stimulus for, the
other’s behavior. Conversational turn-taking is a quintessential illustration: Child A requests
information from Child B (“What’s your name?”), Child B responds (“My name is Julius.
What’s yours?”), Child A replies (“Elodie.”), and so on.
Such a simple exchange as that of Julius and Elodie belies the richness and
complexity of the ways that children of most ages communicate with and influence one
another. Thus, besides introducing themselves, children in conversation may argue, gossip,
self-disclose, and joke, among other things. And, during interaction, children also cooperate,
compete, fight, withdraw, respond to provocation, and engage in a host of other behaviors
that includes everything from ritualized sexual contact to rough-and-tumble (R&T) play to
highly structured sociodramatic fantasy. Typically, researchers have been less interested in
cataloguing the myriad of interactional experiences than in understanding the origins and
consequences of three broad childhood behavioral tendencies: (1) moving toward others, (2)
moving against others, and (3) moving away from others. As a consequence, our
understanding of children’s experiences at the interactional level may be disproportionately
organized around the constructs of sociability and helpfulness, aggression, and withdrawal.
Although many social exchanges have their own inherent logic (as in the question-
answer sequence of Julius and Elodie), it is also the case that the forms and trajectories of
episodes of interaction are shaped by the relationships in which they are embedded. For
example, friends are more committed to resolving conflict with each other than nonfriends,
are more likely than nonfriends to reach equitable resolutions, and continue to interact
following a disagreement (Laursen, Finkelstein, & Betts, 2001; Laursen, Hartup, & Koplas,
1996). Beyond this, children engaged in interaction vary their behavior as a function of such
factors as their short-term and long-term personal goals, their understanding of their
partner’s thoughts and feelings in the situation, the depth of their repertoire of alternative
responses, and various “ecological” features of the context of the interactions (such as the
presence of bystanders). It is precisely the demonstration of such range and flexibility in
responding to the challenges of interpersonal interaction that many writers think of as social
competence (e.g., Bukowski, Rubin, & Parker, 2001).
Relationships introduce a second and higher-order level of complexity to children’s
experiences with peers. Relationships refer to the meanings, expectations, and emotions that
derive from a succession of interactions between two individuals known to each other.
Because the individuals are known to each other, the nature and course of each interaction is
influenced by the history of past interactions between the individuals as well as by their
expectations for interactions in the future. It has been suggested that the degree of closeness
of a relationship is determined by such qualities as the frequency and strength of influence,
the diversity of influence across different behaviors, and the length of time the relationship
has endured. In a close relationship, influence is frequent, diverse, strong, and enduring.
Alternatively, relationships can be defined with reference to the predominant emotions that
participants typically experience in them (e.g., affection, attachment, or enmity).
As a form of social organization, dyadic relationships share features with larger social
organizations, such as a family, a class, or a team. For instance, dyads, like larger
organizational structures, undergo role differentiation, specialization, and division of labor
(McCall, 1988). However, there are certain features of dyadic relationships that are distinct to
this level of social organization and vital to understanding its functioning and impact on
interactions and individuals. Unlike most social organizations, dyadic relationships do not
vary in membership size. This makes the dyad peculiarly vulnerable, for the loss of a single
member terminates the dyad’s existence. Because members appreciate this vulnerability,
issues of commitment, attachment, and investment loom larger in dyadic relationships than
in other forms of social organization. Indeed, an understanding of the surface behavior of
members of relationships can be elusive unless the deeper meaning of behavior in relation to
the relationship’s mortality is considered.
A final point is that relationships must be understood according to their place in the
network of other relationships. For example, children’s friendships are influenced by the
relationships they have at home with parents and siblings (Belsky & Cassidy, 1995).
Friendship. In the literature on children’s peer experiences, one form of dyadic
relationship has received attention above all others—friendship. The issue of what
constitutes friendship is a venerable philosophical debate beyond the scope of this chapter.
However, some points from this debate warrant noting here because of their operational
First, there is widespread agreement that friendship is a reciprocal relationship that
must be affirmed or recognized by both parties. Reciprocity is the factor that distinguishes
friendship from the nonreciprocal attraction of only one partner to another. A second point
of consensus is that reciprocity of affection represents an essential, though not necessarily
exclusive, tie that binds friends together (Hays, 1988). Similarities or complementarities of
talents and interests may lead to friendship and can help sustain them; however, they do not
constitute the basis of the friendship itself. The basis is reciprocal affection. Third,
friendships are voluntary, not obligatory or prescribed. In some cultures and in some
circumstances, children may be assigned their “friends,” sometimes even at birth
(Krappmann, 1996). Although these relationships may take on some of the features and
serve some of the same interpersonal ends as voluntary relationships, most scholars would
agree that their involuntary nature argues against confusing them with friendship.
A group is a collection of interacting individuals who have some degree of reciprocal
influence over one another. Hinde (1987) suggests that a group is the structure that emerges
from the features and patterning of the relationships and interactions present in a population
of children. Accordingly, groups possess properties that arise from the manner in which the
relationships are patterned but are not present in the individual relationships themselves.
Examples of such properties include cohesiveness, or the degree of unity and inclusiveness
exhibited by the children or manifest by the density of the interpersonal relationships;
hierarchy, or the extent of intransitivity in the ordering of the individual relationships along
interesting dimensions (e.g., If Fred dominates Brian and Brian dominates Peter, does Fred
dominate Peter?); and homogeneity, or consistency across members in the ascribed or achieved
personal characteristics (e.g., sex, race, age, or attitudes toward school). Finally, every group
has norms, or distinctive patterns of behaviors and attitudes that characterize group members
and differentiate them from members of other groups.
Many of our most important means for describing groups speak to these core
characteristics or processes. Thus, researchers may address the degree to which the
relationships and interactions in a group are segregated along sex or racial lines (e.g., Killen,
Lee-Kim, McGlothlin, & Strangor, 2002); they may compare the rates of social isolation
among groups that differ in composition; or they may investigate the extent to which a
group’s hierarchies of affiliation, dominance, and influence are linear and interrelated. In
addition, group norms can be used as a basis for distinguishing separate “crowds” in the
networks of relationships among children in high school (e.g., Brown, 1989).
It is worth noting that the construct that has dominated the peer literature during the
past 25 years, namely that of popularity, is both an individual- and a group-oriented
phenomenon. Measures of popularity refer to the group’s view of an individual in relation to
the dimensions of liking and disliking. In this regard, popularity is a group construct and the
processes of rejection and acceptance are group processes. Yet, despite this reality, most peer
researchers treat popularity as characteristic of the individual (e.g., Newcomb, Bukowski, &
It is important to recognize that each of the social levels described earlier falls under the all-
reaching umbrella of culture. By culture is meant “the set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and
behaviors shared by a group of people, communicated from one generation to the next”
(Matsumoto, 1997, p. 5). Cultural beliefs and norms help interpret the acceptability of
individual characteristics and the types and ranges of interactions and relationships that are
likely or permissible.
Given that the majority of the world’s inhabitants do not reside in culturally
Westernized countries, the cross-cultural work on peer interactions, relationships, and
groups requires careful note: Child development is influenced by many factors. In any
culture, children are shaped by the physical and social settings in which they live as well as
culturally regulated customs, childrearing practices, and culturally based belief systems
(Harkness & Super, 2002). The bottom line is that the psychological “meaning” attributed to
any given social behavior is, in large part, a function of the ecological niche in which it is
produced. If a given behavior is viewed as acceptable, then parents (and significant others)
will attempt to encourage its development; if the behavior is perceived as maladaptive or
abnormal, then parents (and significant others) will attempt to discourage its growth and
development. And the very means by which people go about encouraging or discouraging
the given behavior may be culturally determined and defined. Thus, in some cultures, the
response to an aggressive act may be to explain to the child why the behavior is
unacceptable; in others, physical discipline may be the accepted norm; in yet others,
aggression may be ignored or perhaps even reinforced (for a discussion, see Bornstein &
Cheah, 2006). It would appear most sensible for the international community of child
development researchers not to generalize to other cultures their own culture-specific
theories of normal and abnormal development. In this regard, we describe relevant extant
research pertaining to cross-cultural similarities and differences in children’s peer interactions
and relationships throughout this chapter.
To understand children’s experiences with peers, researchers have focused on children’s
interactions with other children and on their involvements in peer relationships and groups.
Analyses in each level—interactions, relationships, groups—are scientifically legitimate and
raise interesting questions. However, until recently, studying individual, dyadic, and group
measures was challenging, both conceptually and statistically. Advances in multilevel
modeling techniques and in the availability of more-or-less user-friendly software have given
researchers the tools to examine the effects of group, dyadic, and individual variables
simultaneously. These procedures can be used to assess how the effects of variables
describing individual tendencies (e.g., aggressiveness, sociability, or inhibition) on an
outcome (e.g., one’s subsequent aggressiveness, sociability, or reticence) will vary as a
function of dyadic-relationship characteristics (e.g., quality of friendship; quality of the
mother-child relationship). In turn, a researcher can assess variations in dyadic effects due to
the characteristics of the groups in which they are embedded. These techniques have been
used with success already (e.g., Kochenderfer-Ladd & Wardrop, 2001).
PEER INTERACTIONS, RELATIONSHIPS, AND GROUPS: A
Children’s peer experiences become increasingly diverse, complex, and integrated with
development. In some cases, the impetus for these developments rests in children (i.e.,
changes in interpersonal understanding), while others derive from situational or contextual
phenomena. In the following sections, we review many developmental mileposts in the
interactional, relational, and group levels of children’s involvement with other children.
The Infant and Toddler Years.
Interactions. Infants do have obvious social limitations. Babies are unable, for example,
to comprehend the social and cognitive needs, capacities, or zones of proximal development
of their age-mates (Hay, 1985). Yet, careful observation of infants reveals remarkable strides
taken during the 1st year of life. These include (a) the careful observation of peers and
seemingly intentional direction of smiles, frowns, and gestures to their play partners (Hay,
Nash, & Pederson, 1983); and (b) the response, often in kind, to their play partner’s
behaviors (Mueller & Brenner, 1977). With the emergence of locomotion and the ability to
use words to communicate during the 2
year of life, interactive bouts become lengthier,
and toddler play becomes organized around particular themes or games. Often, these toddler
games are marked by reciprocal imitative acts (Ross, 1982).
These developments promote more effective social commerce between toddlers and
contribute a generally positive affective quality to their interaction (Hay, Castle, Davies,
Demetriou, & Stimson, 1999). However, toddler social interaction is also marked by conflict
(e.g., Hay & Ross, 1982; Rubin, Hastings, Chen, Stewart, & McNichol, 1998). Rubin et al.
(1998) found that over 70% of 25-month-old children participated in a conflict situation at
least once in a 50-minute laboratory setting. In a comparable setting, Hay and Ross (1982)
observed 87% of 21-month-old toddlers engaged in at least one conflict. As such, it appears
that conflict is neither infrequent nor limited to a small percentage of toddlers.
Importantly, it appears as if many of those toddlers who frequently instigate conflicts
with peers are the most socially outgoing and initiating (National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network, 2001). It is also the case that
toddlers are highly attentive to, and are more likely to imitate and initiate interactions with,
highly sociable age-mates (Howes, 1988). Taken together, these data suggest that during the
2nd year of life, toddlers do display social skills of modest complexity.
Relationships. It has been demonstrated that toddlers are more likely to initiate play,
direct positive affect to, and engage in complex interactions with familiar than unfamiliar
playmates (Howes, 1988). But can familiarity be equated with the existence of a relationship?
Ross and colleagues have demonstrated that toddlers do develop reciprocal relationships
with familiar others that are characterized not only by the mutual exchange of positive
overtures, but also by agonistic interactions. Positive interactions are directed specifically to
those who have directed positive initiations to the child beforehand; conflict is initiated
specifically with those who have initiated conflictual interactions with the child beforehand
(e.g., Ross, Conant, Cheyne, & Alevisos, 1992).
To the extent that reciprocal interchanges of positive overtures may characterize
particular dyads, it may be said that toddlers do have friendships. Howes (1988) defined
toddler friendship as encompassing the response to a peer’s overture at least once, the
production of at least one complementary or reciprocal dyadic exchange, and the
demonstration of positive affect during at least one such exchange. Vandell and Mueller
(1980) identified toddler friends as those who initiated positive social interaction more often
with each other than with other potential partners. Thus, during the toddler period,
friendships, as defined earlier, do exist; however, it is doubtful that they carry the same
strength of psychological meaning as the friendships of older children. Nevertheless, these
early relationships may lay the groundwork for the establishment and maintenance of
friendships throughout the childhood years.
Groups. Even young toddlers spend much of their time in small groups such as with
day-care mates. But there is little empirical evidence that this level of social organization is
salient to, or influential on, these young children. Nevertheless, some authors (e.g., Legault &
Strayer, 1991) have observed dominance hierarchies in small groups of young toddlers, as
well as in subsets of children who invest greater attention and interaction to one another
than to outside nonmembers. Interestingly, some members of these groups appear more
central to their functioning than others, perhaps illustrating the earliest examples of
individual differences in popularity and influence.
Interaction. From 24 months to 5 years, the frequency of peer interaction increases
and becomes more complex. To begin with, children at these ages engage in a variety of
different types of play behaviors and activities, including unoccupied, onlooking (the child
observes others but does not participate in the activity), solitary, parallel (the child plays
beside but not with other children), and group activities (Rubin, Watson, & Jambor, 1978).
Importantly, the categories of solitary, parallel, and group behavior comprise a variety of play
forms that differ in cognitive complexity. Thus, whether alone, near, or with others, children
may produce simple sensorimotor behaviors (functional play, e.g., aimlessly bouncing a ball),
construct structures from blocks or draw with crayons (constructive play), or engage in some
form of pretense (dramatic play). The examination of these cognitive forms of play reveals
interesting developmental trends. For example, solitary-sensorimotor behaviors become
increasingly rare over the preschool years, while the relative frequency of solitary-
construction or exploration remains the same (Rubin et al., 1978). Furthermore, the only
types of social interactive activity to increase over the preschool years are sociodramatic play
and games-with-rules (Goncu, Patt, & Kouba, 2002).
Perhaps the most complex form of group interactive activity during the preschool
years is sociodramatic play (Goncu et al., 2002). The ability to engage easily in this form of
social activity represents mastery of one of the essential tasks of early childhood—the will
and skill to share and coordinate decontextualized and substitutive activities. Researchers
have reported that by the 3rd year of life, children are able to share symbolic meanings
through social pretense (e.g., Howes, 1988). This is a remarkable accomplishment, as it
involves the capacity to take on complementary roles, none of which matches real-world
situations, and to agree on the adoption of these imaginary roles in a rule-governed context.
The ability to share meaning during pretense has been referred to as intersubjectivity (Goncu,
1993), which research findings suggest reflect the increasing sophistication of preschooler’s
naive “theory of mind” (Watson, Nixon, Wilson, & Capage, 1999). Researchers have also
demonstrated that engaging in sociodramatic play is associated with social perspective-taking
skills and the display of skilled interpersonal behavior (Howes, 1992).
Several other significant advances are made during the preschool period. For one,
prosocial caring, sharing, and helping behaviors become more commonplace with increasing
age. Four-year-olds direct prosocial behavior to their peers more often than 3-year-olds (e.g.,
Benenson, Markovits, Roy, & Denko, 2003). Importantly, aggression increases until age 3
and then declines, and the nature of conflict changes from the toddler to the preschool
period. During toddlerhood, most conflict appears to center on toys and resources; during
the preschool years, conflict becomes increasingly centered on differences of opinion (e.g.,
Chen, Fein, & Tam, 2001)—a reflection of the child’s growing ability to focus on others’
ideas, attitudes, and opinions.
Relationships. During early childhood, children express preferences for some peers
over others as playmates. It appears that one important influence on this process is that
preschoolers are attracted to peers who are similar to them in some noticeable regard. For
example, similarities in age and sex draw young children together. Furthermore, preschoolers
appear to be attracted to, and become friends with peers whose behavioral tendencies are
similar to their own, a phenomenon known as behavioral homophily (e.g., Rubin, Lynch,
Coplan, Rose-Krasnor, & Booth, 1994).
Once preschoolers form friendships, their behavior with these individuals is
distinctive from their behavior with other children who are familiar but not friends. Children
as young as 3.5 years direct more social overtures, engage in more social interactions, and
play in more cooperative and prosocial ways with friends than nonfriends (e.g., Dunn &
Cutting, 1999). Compared to nonfriends, preschool friends also demonstrate more
quarreling and more active (assaults and threats) and reactive hostility (refusals and
resistance; Dunn & Cutting, 1999). Moreover, Hartup and his colleagues (e.g., Hartup,
Laursen, Stewart, & Eastenson, 1988) demonstrated that preschool children engage in more
conflicts with their friends than with neutral associates. These differences are best
understood by recognizing that friends spend much more time actually interacting with each
other than do nonfriends. Hartup and his colleagues also reported qualitative differences in
how preschool friends and nonfriends resolve conflicts and in what the outcomes of these
conflicts are likely to be. Friends, as compared with nonfriends, make more use of
negotiation and disengagement, relative to standing firm, in their resolution of conflicts. In
conflict outcomes, friends are more likely to have equal resolutions, relative to win or lose
occurrences. Also, following conflict resolution, friends are more likely than neutral
associates to stay in physical proximity and continue to engage in interaction.
While approximately 75% of preschoolers have reciprocally nominated best
friendships (Dunn, 1993), not all young children have a best friend. And, Ladd,
Kochenderfer, and Coleman (1996) have shown that not all friendships in early childhood
are equally stable. Those friendships that involve higher levels of positive friendship qualities
(e.g., validation) and lower levels of negative friendship qualities (e.g., low conflict) are most
likely to be stable. Importantly, during this period of early childhood, the ability to make
friends, friendship quality, and stability of young children’s friendships are associated with,
and predicted by, social-cognitive and emotional maturity. For example, the abilities to
understand emotional displays and social intent and to perspective-take are associated with
friendship formation, maintenance, and friendship quality (Dunn & Cutting, 1999; Ladd &
Kochenderfer, 1996). Furthermore, the young child’s ability to regulate emotions is
associated with and predictive of both the number of mutual friends and friendship quality
(Walden, Lemerise, & Smith, 1999).
Groups. Many researchers have found that the social dominance hierarchy is an
important organizational feature of the preschool peer group (e.g., Vaughn, Vollenweider,
Bost, Azria-Evans, & Snider, 2003). And, researchers have argued that dominance
hierarchies develop naturally in groups to serve adaptive functions. In the case of preschool-
aged children, dominance hierarchies appear to reduce overt aggression among members of
the group. Observations of exchanges between children in which physical attacks, threats,
and object conflicts occur reveal a consistent pattern of winners and losers. And children
who are losers in object struggles rarely initiate conflict with those who have proven
“victorious” over others or who have been victorious over them (Strayer & Strayer, 1976).
Middle Childhood and Early Adolescence
The school-age years represent a dramatic shift in social context for most children in
Western cultures. During this time, the proportion of social interaction that involves peers
increases. The peer group also grows in size, and peer interaction becomes less closely
supervised by adults. The settings of peer interaction also change. Preschool children’s peer
contacts are centered in the home and in day-care centers, whereas school-age children come
into contact with peers in a wide range of settings (e.g., “hanging out” at school or after-
school, talking on the telephone; Zarbatany, Hartmann, & Rankin, 1990).
Interaction. During middle childhood, verbal and relational aggression (insults,
derogation, threats, gossip) gradually replace direct physical aggression. Further, relative to
preschoolers, the aggressive behavior of 6- to 12-year-olds is less frequently directed toward
possessing objects or occupying specific territory and more specifically hostile toward others
(Dodge, Coie, & Lynam, 2006). With regard to positive social behavior, Eisenberg, Fabes
and Spinrad (2006) report the levels of generosity, helpfulness, or cooperation that children
direct to their peers increases somewhat during the primary and middle school years. The
frequency of “pretend” or “nonliteral” aggression, or rough-and-tumble (R&T) play
increases in early elementary school, and thereafter declines in middle childhood and early
adolescence. Interestingly, it has been proposed that the primary function of R&T, especially
among young adolescent boys, is to establish dominance status and thereby delimit
aggression among peers (Pellegrini, 2002).
Children’s concerns about acceptance in the peer group rise sharply during middle
childhood, and these concerns appear related to an increase in the salience and frequency of
gossip (Kuttler, Parker, & La Greca, 2002). Gossip, at this age, reaffirms children’s
membership in important same-sex social groups and reveals, to its constituent members,
the core attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors comprising the basis for inclusion in or exclusion
from these groups. Thus, gossip may play a role in fostering friendship closeness and in
promulgating children’s social reputations.
One additional form of interaction has received specific attention in the recent
literature. Deviancy training occurs when children model and reward aggressive behaviors in
each other; the process by which these exchanges take place is thought to increase individual
tendencies in aggressiveness and to strengthen ties to aggressive and substance-abusing
friends and delinquent peer groups. In this regard, deviancy training “hits” at all levels of the
social enterprise (Dishion, McCord, & Poulin, 1999).
Yet another form of interaction emerging fully blown during middle childhood and
early adolescence is bullying and victimization (Espelage, Bosworth, & Simon, 2000). Bullying
refers to acts of verbal and physical aggression on the part of an individual that are chronic
and directed toward particular peers (victims). Bullying accounts for a substantial portion of
the aggression that occurs in the peer group (Olweus, 1978, 1993). The dimension that
distinguishes bullying from other forms of aggressive behavior is its specificity—bullies
direct their behavior toward only certain peers, comprising approximately 10% of the school
population (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care
Research Network, 2001). Research on bullying suggests that bullies are characterized by
strong tendencies toward aggressive behavior, relatively weak control over their aggressive
impulses, and a tolerance for aggressive behavior (Olweus 1978, 1993).
Children who are greatest risk for victimization are those who have elevated scores on
measures of either aggression or social withdrawal. Nearly every study that has assessed the
association between aggressiveness and victimization has revealed a positive correlation (e.g.,
Hanish & Guerra, 2004; Snyder et al., 2003). These findings appear to be culturally universal;
victimization and aggression have been found to be positively associated in North American,
Southern Asian (Khatri & Kupermidt, 2003) and East Asian (Schwartz, Farver, Chang, &
Lee-Shin, 2002) samples. Finally, there is evidence that anxious and socially reticent children
are also victims of bullying behavior (Kochenderfer-Ladd 2003; Olweus, 1993).
There are at least two explanations for the observation that aggression and social
withdrawal are associated with victimization. First, a withdrawn child is likely to be
victimized because she or he is an easy prey who is unlikely to retaliate when provoked (e.g.,
the construct of “whipping boy”; Olweus, 1978, 1993); alternatively, an aggressive child is
victimized because his or her behavior is irritating and likely to provoke victimization from
others (“the provocative victim”; Olweus, 1993). According to this view different
mechanisms underlie victimization for different types of children. Another view uses a single
model to explain victimization. It claims that children victimize peers who do not promote
the basic group goals of coherence, harmony, and evolution. According to this view,
aggressive and withdrawn children do not promote these positive aspects of group
functioning and as a result they are victimized.
Relationships. The period of middle childhood and early adolescence brings marked
changes in children’s understanding of friendship. For example, children’s friendship
conceptions at the start of middle childhood (7 to 8 years) involve rewards and costs—
friends are rewarding to be with, whereas nonfriends are difficult or uninteresting to be with.
At this age, a friend is also someone who is convenient (i.e., who lives nearby), has
interesting toys or possessions, and shares the child’s expectations about play activities. By
about 10 to 11 years, children recognize the importance of shared values and social
understanding, and friends are expected to stick up for and be loyal to one another. Later, at
11 to 13 years, children acquire the view that friends share similar interests, are required to
make active attempts to understand each other, and are willing to engage in self-disclosure
Changes in the understanding of friendship are accompanied by changes in the
patterns and nature of involvement in friendships. Children’s friendship choices are more
stable and more likely to be reciprocated in middle childhood than at earlier ages (Berndt &
Hoyle, 1985). Friendships that are high in relationship quality are more likely to persist over
time, and this is also true in early childhood. Furthermore, stable friendships in middle
childhood and early adolescence are more likely to comprise dyads in which the partners are
sociable and altruistic; friendships that dissolve during the course of a school year are more
likely to comprise partners who are aggressive and victimized by peers (Hektner, August, &
Realmuto, 2000; Wojslawowicz Bowker, Rubin, Burgess, Booth-LaForce, & Rose-Krasnor,
With respect to the features of friendships in middle childhood and early
adolescence, Newcomb and Bagwell (1995) reported that children are more likely to behave
in positive ways with friends than nonfriends or to ascribe positive characteristics to their
interactions with friends. Although the effect size of this difference may, in some cases be
small, this pattern of findings is observed across a broad range of studies using a variety of
methods, including direct observations (e.g., Simpkins & Parke, 2002), and interviews
(Berndt, Hawkins, & Hoyle, 1986). More important, Newcomb and Bagwell’s (1995) meta-
analysis showed that the expression of affect varied considerably for pairs of friends and
nonfriends. In their interactions with friends, relative to interaction with nonfriends, children
show more affective reciprocity and emotional intensity, and enhanced levels of emotional
understanding. Moreover, young adolescent friends use distraction to keep their friends from
potentially harmful rumination about social attributions that may induce guilt or shame
(Denton & Zarbatany, 1996). In this regard, friendship is a socially and positive relational
context, and it provides opportunities for the expression and regulation of affect. Friend-
nonfriend differences are stronger during early adolescence than during either middle
childhood or during the preschool years.
One of the few dimensions of interaction in which there are no differences between
friends and nonfriends is that of conflict. Research has shown repeatedly that after early
childhood, pairs of friends engage in about the same amount of conflict as pairs of
nonfriends (Laursen et al., 1996). There is a major difference, however, in the conflict
resolution strategies that friends and nonfriends adopt. In particular, friends are more likely
than nonfriends to resolve conflicts in a way that will preserve or promote the continuity of
their relationship (Laursen et al., 2001). The beneficial effects of friendship are qualified by
the characteristics of the best friend: Young adolescents with aggressive friends, compared
with those who have nonaggressive friends, adopt increasingly aggressive solutions to
conflicts; young adolescents who are nonaggressive and who have nonaggressive friends use
more prosocial solutions (Brendgen, Bowen, Rondeau, & Vitaro, 1999).
There appear to be consistent qualitative differences in boys’ and girls’ best
friendships in the middle childhood and early adolescent years. For example, girls’
friendships are marked by greater intimacy, self-disclosure, and validation and caring than
those of boys (e.g., Zarbatany, McDougall, & Hymel, 2000). Ironically, it is because of the
intimacy of girls’ best friendships that they appear to be less stable and more fragile than
those of boys (e.g., Benenson & Christakos, 2003). According to Benenson and Christakos,
intimate disclosure between female friends may become hazardous when best friends have a
conflict. In such cases, the conflicting friends can divulge personal information to outsiders
(Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Intimate disclosure within the friendships of girls also appears
hazardous to psychological well-being when conducted in a “co-ruminative” fashion (Rose,
2002). Significantly, when boys’ best friendships are with girls rather than boys, intimacy is
higher, thus suggesting that there may be two different “worlds” of relationships defined by
context and activity (Zarbatany et al., 2000).
Throughout this age period, children are attracted to and become best friends with
those who resemble them in age, sex, ethnicity, and behavioral status (Hartup & Abecassis,
2002). Researchers in both Western and Eastern cultures have reported that greater
behavioral similarities exist between friends than nonfriends, and children share friendships
with other children who resemble themselves in terms of prosocial and antisocial behaviors
(e.g., Haselager, Hartup, van Lieshout, & Riksen-Walraven, 1998; Poulin & Boivin, 2000),
shyness and internalized distress (e.g., Rubin, Wojslawowicz, Burgess, Booth-LaForce, &
Rose-Krasnor, 2006), sociability, peer popularity, and academic achievement and motivation
(e.g., Altermatt & Pomerantz, 2003).
Finally, researchers have recently begun to study enmity and mutual antipathies (e.g.,
Abecassis, Hartup, Haselager, Scholte, & van Lieshout, 2002). Whereas the topic of disliking
is certainly not new (e.g., Hayes, Gershman, & Bolin, 1980), the emphasis of recent research
has been on the frequency of mutual antipathies, their correlates, and their developmental
significance. Abecassis et al. (2002) have shown that rates vary across classrooms, with the
frequencies of dyadic enmity being as high as 58% in some classrooms. Although mutual
antipathies are experienced by all children, they are most common among rejected children
and they are more common among boys than girls, especially during middle childhood
compared with adolescence (Rodkin & Hodges, 2003). Children in such relationships tend to
be more depressed than are other children, and the presence of a mutual antipathy appears
to exacerbate the effect of other negative experiences, such as peer rejection.
Nevertheless, the developmental significance of mutual antipathies is unclear, and
many issues related to the study of mutual antipathies require further exploration. Perhaps
the most important concerns the issue of how we define and measure the concept of enemy.
To paraphrase the important discussions provided by Hartup and Abecassis (2002), having
an enemy implies warfare. Consequently, researchers would do well to examine whether
children who nominate each other as “Someone I do not like,” actually interact. It may be
that mutual antipathies merely capture an affective dimension, not an interactional one.
“True” enemies may be proactive about their relationship. They may spread gossip about
one another and engage in relational or other forms of aggression. At present, there are
virtually no data indicating how and whether those who mutually nominate each other as
“Someone I do not like” actually have a clearly defined relationship.
Groups. During the upper elementary school and middle school years, the structure
of the peer group changes from a relatively unified whole to a more differentiated structure.
In this new structure, children organize themselves into social groups, clusters, networks, or
cliques (e.g., Bagwell, Coie, Terry, & Lochman, 2000). Peer networks and cliques are
voluntary, friendship-based groups, and stand in contrast to the activity or work groups to
which children can be assigned by circumstance or by adults. Cliques generally include three
to nine same-sex children of the same race (Chen, Chang, & He, 2003; Kindermann,
McCollom, & Gibson, 1995). By 11 years of age, most of children’s peer interaction takes
place in the context of the clique, and nearly all children report being a member of one. With
respect to group size, boys, compared with girls, show a preference for larger groups
(Benenson, Apostoleris, & Parnass, 1997).
Peer networks, whether identified observationally (e.g., Gest, Farmer, Cairns, & Xie,
2003) or via peer reports (e.g., Bagwell et al., 2000), or whether identified in or out of school
(Kiesner, Poulin, & Nicotra, 2003), are typically organized to maximize within-group
homogeneity (Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2000). Thus, in recent studies of
preadolescents conducted in both Western (e.g., Canada, Finland, United States) and Eastern
(e.g., China) cultures, group membership has been found to comprise children similar with
regard to the following characteristics: aggression (Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, 2003; Gest et
al., 2003; Xie, Cairns, & Cairns, 1999), bullying (e.g., Espelage et al., 2003), and school
motivation and performance (e.g., Chen et al., 2003; Kindermann, 1993).
Apart from cliques, the other primary organizational feature of children’s groups in
middle childhood and early adolescence is the popularity hierarchy. There have been recent
attempts to distinguish between sociometric popularity and perceived popularity. In the case of
sociometric popularity or peer acceptance, the questions asked of children are “Who do you
most like?” and “Who do you most dislike?” In the case of perceived popularity, the child is
asked who he or she believes is the most popular in the classroom, grade, or school
(Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998; LaFontana & Cillessen, 2002). Whereas being liked or
accepted occurs at the dyadic level (i.e., one person has affection for someone else), the
perception of someone as being popular in a classroom or school reflects a group level of
analysis (i.e., the person is perceived according to her/his position in the group). Thus, in the
study of peer group relationships, the word (and traditional measurement of) “acceptance” is
most properly taken as a direct assessment of the extent to which a child is liked by her/his
peers, whereas the word “popularity” refers to a child’s perceived standing or status in the
Recently, researchers have focused on the study of such negative characteristics as
aggression to clarify the distinction between the meanings and measurement of peer
acceptance and perceived popularity. Findings show that children whose level of aggression
is moderately above the mean and who use aggression for instrumental reasons are perceived
as more popular in their groups than are children who are low in aggression or whose
aggression is high and undifferentiated (e.g., Hawley, 2003; Vaughn at al., 2003). Although
the association between aggression and popularity may be seen even during the preschool
period (Vaughn et al., 2003), this association appears to be stronger during early adolescence
(Cillessen & Mayeux, 2004; Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003). Yet, whereas aggression is positively
associated with measures of popularity during early adolescence, it is not related to
acceptance. Moderately aggressive children may be given status and power in the peer group;
however, this does not mean they are well-adjusted or that they will receive or benefit from
the affection or kindness from their peers.
These findings are consistent with ideas about how groups function and reward
persons who promote the group’s functioning (see Bukowski & Sippola, 2001). Whereas the
main reward that one can provide at the level of the dyad is affection, the main rewards that
can be provided at the level of the group are power, attention, and status. And whereas
group members victimize peers who impede the group’s evolution and coherence, groups
give power, attention, and status to group members who promote the group’s well-being.
Given that group leaders may, at times, have to be forceful, strong, assertive, indeed
Machiavellian, their behavior may include a larger coercive or aggressive component than is
seen among other children. This tendency to ascribe power and status to moderately
aggressive individuals may be more pronounced in adolescence when aggression is seen as a
more normative entity than among younger children (Moffitt, 1993).
Interaction. The trend of spending increasingly substantial amounts of time with peers
that begins in middle childhood continues in adolescence (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi & Larson,
1984). Moreover, adolescent peer interaction takes place with less adult guidance and control
than peer interaction in middle childhood, and is more likely to involve individuals of the
opposite-sex (Brown & Klute, 2003). These phenomena are largely consistent across cultural
Relationships. As they enter adolescence, both boys and girls already understand a
great deal about the reciprocal operations and obligations of friendship, about the continuity
of friendships, and about the psychological grounds that evoke behavior. During
adolescence, however, youngsters begin to accept the other’s need to establish relationships
with others and to grow through such experiences. Thus, adolescents’ discussions of
friendship and friendship issues show fewer elements of possessiveness and jealousy, and
more concern with how the relationship helps the partners enhance their respective self-
identities (Berndt & Hoyle, 1985).
During adolescence, friendships are relatively stable and best maintained when the
partners have similar attitudes, aspirations, and intellect (Berndt et al., 1986). Same-sex
friends account for an increasingly larger proportion of adolescents’ perceived primary social
network, and friends equal or surpass parents as sources of support and advice to
adolescents in many significant domains (e.g., Furman & Buhrmester, 1992).. One hallmark
of friendship in adolescence is its emphasis on intimacy and self-disclosure: adolescents
report greater levels of intimacy in their friendships than do younger children (Buhrmester &
Romantic relationships are first seen during early adolescence with approximately 25%
of 12-year-olds claiming they have had a romantic relationship during the past 18 months
(Carver, Joyner, & Udry, 2003). This frequency increases in a largely linear fashion during
adolescence with roughly 70% of boys and 75% of girls making this claim at age 18 (Carver
et al., 2003; Seiffge-Krenke, 2003). The average duration of a romantic relationship has been
observed to be 3.9 months at age 13, and 11.8 months at age 17 months (Seiffge-Krenke,
2003). Importantly, adolescent boys and girls have clear conceptions of the properties that
distinguish romantic relationships from friendships (Connolly, Craig, Goldberg, & Pepler,
2004). Whereas romantic relationships are conceived in terms of passion and commitment,
other-sex friendships are largely characterized by affiliation.
There are large differences between those adolescents who do and do not participate
in romantic relationships. These differences vary during the adolescent period and they are
often characterized by complex patterns. Early involvement in romantic relationships has
been linked to problem behaviors and emotional difficulties during adolescence, although
this difference appears to be strongest among boys and girls who are unpopular among their
same-sex peers (Brendgen, Vitaro, Doyle, Markiewicz, & Bukowski, 2002). It has been
reported also that early daters show lower levels of scholastic achievement (Seiffge-Krenke,
2003), especially among girls (Brendgen et al., 2002). Among older adolescents, however,
participation in romantic relationships is associated with positive experiences among same-
sex peers and emotional and behavioral well-being (Seiffge-Krenke, 2003). Connolly,
Furman, and Konarski (2000) reported that being part of a small group of close same-sex
friends predicted being involved in other-sex peer networks, which, in turn, predicted the
emergence of future romantic relationships. There is evidence also that the quality of a
child’s same-sex friendships predicts the quality of their concurrent and subsequent romantic
relationships (Connolly et al., 2000).
Although there appears to be some inter-relatedness between romantic relationships
and other relationship experiences, this association is often complex. Using an attachment
framework, Furman, Simon, Shaffer, and Bouchey (2002) studied adolescents’ internal
working models for their relationships with parents, friends, and romantic partners.
Adolescents’ perceived support in relationships with their parents tended to be related to
their perceived support in romantic relationships and friendships; support in friend and
romantic relationships, however, were not related to each other. Nevertheless, self and other
controlling behaviors in friendships were related to corresponding behaviors in romantic
relationships. Perceived negative interactions in the three types of relationships were also
significantly associated with each other. This pattern of results indicates greater
generalizability of negative than positive features across relationship types.
Groups. As in middle childhood, cliques are readily observed in adolescence, and
group membership comprises individuals who are similar with regard to school achievement
(Kindermann, 1995), substance use (cigarettes and alcohol; Urberg, Degirmencioglu, &
Pilgrim, 1997), and delinquency (Kiesner et al., 2003). Whereas cliques represent small
groups of individuals linked by friendship selections, the concept of peer subcultures, or
“crowds” (Brown & Klute, 2003), is a more encompassing organizational framework for
segmenting adolescent peer social life. A crowd is a reputation-based collective of similarly
stereotyped individuals who may or may not spend much time together. Crowds are defined
by the primary attitudes or activities their members share. Thus, crowd affiliation is assigned
through the consensus of the peer group and is not selected by the adolescents themselves.
Brown (1989) listed the following as common crowd labels among American high school
students: jocks, brains, eggheads, loners, burnouts, druggies, populars, nerds, and greasers. .
Crowd membership is an especially salient feature of adolescent social life and
children’s perceptions of crowds change in important ways with age. For example, between
the ages of 13 and 16 years, adolescents alter the ways that they identify and describe the
crowds in their school (O’Brien & Bierman, 1987). Whereas young adolescents focus on the
specific behavioral proclivities of group members, older adolescents center on members’
dispositional characteristics and values. This observation reflects broader changes that
characterize developmental shifts in person-perception between the childhood and
The stigma that is placed on members of a particular crowd channels adolescents
into relationships and dating patterns with those sharing a similar crowd label. This may
prevent adolescents from the exploration of new identities and discourage shifts to other
crowd memberships. There is recent evidence that the stigma associated with some large
peer groups or crowds influences the judgments that adolescents form about their peers
(Horn, 2003). In particular, Horn (2003) found that adolescents are biased in their use of
reputational or stereotypical information about particular groups, particularly when
presented with ambiguous situations. It is likely that these crowd-specific evaluations help to
perpetuate group stereotypes and the structure of peer groups in a school.
Despite the differences that exist in the structures of peer groups, all of them
inevitably disintegrate by late adolescence. This is largely due to the integration of the sexes
that accompanies this period. To begin with, mixed-sex cliques emerge. Eventually, the
larger groups divide into couples, and by late adolescence, girls and boys feel comfortable
enough to approach one another directly without the support of the clique. Another
contributing factor to the decline in importance of crowds results from adolescents creating
their own personal values and morals. In this regard, they no longer see it as necessary to
broadcast their membership in a particular social group and are therefore content to be
separate and apart from particular crowds.
In this section, we have outlined developmental differences that mark the changing nature of
social interactions and peer relationships from infancy to adolescence. Hopefully, this review
will prove sufficient to provide a normative basis for the discussion that follows concerning
the development of individual differences in children’s social behaviors and peer
THE PROXIMAL CORRELATES AND DISTAL PREDICTORS OF
CHILDREN’S PEER RELATIONSHIPS
The literature on individual differences in popularity and friendship can be divided into two
domains. First, the largest concentration of investigations center on the individual
characteristics associated with (a) acceptance or rejection in the peer group at large, (b) the
ability to make and keep friends, and (c) the quality of friendship. A second body of research
is concerned with the associations between peer acceptance and rejection and friendship and
both the child’s family relationship experiences and the social environments in which the
child functions. This literature deals with the distal correlates of peer acceptance and
friendship. We focus on these proximal correlates and distal predictors below.
Proximal Correlates—Peer Acceptance.
In studies involving play groups (e.g., Coie & Kupersmidt, 1983) and/or peer-assessment
techniques (Newcomb & Bukowski, 1984), researchers interested in behavioral explanations
for peer acceptance and rejection typically examine differences between children classified as
sociometrically popular, rejected, and average. A thorough review of the voluminous
literature on the concomitants of popularity is presented in Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker
(1998). Whereas some reviews of research serve as renaissances that renew the study of a
topic, the reviews of the sociometric classification studies served as a requiem. Although
many of the basic questions of sociometric classification remain unanswered, research on the
differences between children in the different sociometric groups has waned. Herein we
provide a cursory discussion of the literature.
Popular children. “Popular” children are high in acceptance and low in rejection.
Relative to other children, those of popular status are skilled at initiating and maintaining
qualitatively positive relationships. When entering new peer situations, popular children do
not talk exclusively or overbearingly about themselves and their own social goals or desires,
and they are not disruptive of the group’s activity (Dodge, McClaskey, & Feldman, 1985).
Popular children are seen as cooperative, friendly, sociable, and sensitive by peers, teachers,
and observers (e.g., Newcomb & Bukowski, 1984; Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998).
In a meta-analysis of research on popularity, Newcomb et al. (1993) distinguished
between assertive/agonistic behaviors and behaviors that reflected disruptiveness. Popular
children did not differ from others on the former category of behavior whereas they did on
the latter. Popular children, it appears, do engage in some forms of assertive behavior, but
they rarely engage in behaviors that are likely to interfere with the actions and goals of
Rejected children. The most commonly cited behavioral correlate of peer rejection is
aggression, regardless of whether aggression is indexed by peer evaluations, teacher ratings,
or observations (e.g., McNeilly-Choque, Hart, Robinson, Nelson, & Olsen, 1996). The
association between rejection and aggression appears to be rather broad; Newcomb et al.
(1993) revealed that rejected children, relative to average popular and neglected children,
showed elevated levels on three forms of aggression—specifically, disruptiveness, physical
aggression, and negative behavior (e.g., verbal threats). A small number of studies provide
evidence of a causal link between aggression and rejection. In groundbreaking play group
studies (Dodge, 1983; Coie & Kupersmidt, 1983), the interactions between unfamiliar peers
in small groups were observed in a laboratory context over several days. Gradually, some of
the children became popular and others became rejected. The behavior that most clearly
predicted peer rejection was aggression. With increasing age, however, it appears as if
aggression becomes decreasingly associated with rejection, especially among boys (e.g.,
Sandstrom & Coie, 1999). Also, aggressive behavior may not lead to rejection if it is balanced
by a set of positive qualities (e.g., social skill) that facilitate links with other children (Farmer,
Estell, Bishop, O’Neal, & Cairns, 2003).
Indeed, researchers have found that there is a high level of heterogeneity among the
behavioral tendencies of rejected children. Detailed analyses indicate that aggressive children
comprise between 40% to 50% of the rejected group; children who are highly withdrawn,
timid, and wary comprise between 10% to 20% of the rejected group (e.g., Cillessen, van
IJzendoorn, van Lieshout, & Hartup, 1992). Finally, victimization has been observed to be
associated with peer rejection, either as a correlate (e.g., Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2003), as a
mediator that explains the association between withdrawal and victimization, or as a
moderator that increases the stability of victimization (e.g., Hanish & Guerra, 2004).
Variations in the Behavioral Correlates of Popularity: Sex, Group, and Cultural
Groups have norms, or standards, regarding the “goodness” of particular acts. The
acceptability of a behavior, and of the child who displays that behavior, is determined by
whether the behavior conforms to the group’s norms. If a behavior is universally valued, it
should correlate with peer acceptance; if the normalcy of a behavior varies across groups, the
extent to which the behavior is linked to popularity should vary across these groups also. It
is this logic that has provided the basis for much of the research on group variations in the
correlates of popularity.
Sex differences. Given the widespread concern with sex differences in the literature on
child development, it seems surprising to discover how little work exists on the topic of
sociometric peer acceptance. Typically, researchers have failed to examine whether general
findings are equally valid for boys and girls. Further, sex differences have been neglected
despite (a) the long-standing view that the relationships formed and maintained by females
are qualitatively distinct from those of males (Leaper, 1994) and (b) the evidence that some
aspects of social behavior may be differentially normative for boys and girls (e.g.,
Humphreys & Smith, 1987). This gap in the literature is striking and it severely compromises
our current understanding of the peer system (see Ruble, Martin, & Berenbaum, 2006).
Variations across groups. The argument that a child’s popularity will be associated with
particular peer group norms has been the central focus of a number of investigations.
Boivin, Dodge, and Coie (1995), for example, reported that reactive aggression, proactive
aggression, and solitary play were more negatively linked to a measure of social preference
when high levels of these specific behaviors were nonnormative and unrelated to preference
when high levels on these behaviors were normative. Stormshak et al. (1999) also found
support for the person-group similarity model. These researchers reported that for boys,
social withdrawal was associated with peer acceptance in those classrooms in which
withdrawal was normative; for boys, aggression was linked to peer preference in those
classrooms in which aggression was more normative. Findings for girls were, complex and in
some cases not supportive of the person-group similarity model. For example, in classrooms
marked by high aggression, aggressive girls were not better liked than nonaggressive girls.
These studies show clearly that the association between a particular form of behavior
and popularity depends on whether the behavior is normative for a group. Considering the
importance of group norms as moderators of the associations between behaviors and
popularity, researchers should be cautious about drawing broad conclusions about the
correlates of popularity. Indeed, researchers would do well to assess the person/group
interaction and similarity as a major determinant of peer acceptance and rejection.
Variations across culture. Cross-cultural research on the correlates of peer acceptance
and rejection has been aimed at asking whether given behaviors known to be associated with
acceptance or rejection in North American samples demonstrate similar relations in other
cultures. One shortcoming in this work may be that investigators have taken measures
originally developed for use in a Western cultural context, and have employed them in other
cultural milieus. The general conclusion from this research has been that aggression and
helpfulness are associated with rejection and popularity respectively in a wide range of
cultures (e.g., Chang et al., 2005; Cillessen et al., 1992). Alternatively, researchers have found
that among young Chinese children, sensitive, cautious, and inhibited behavior are positively
associated with competent and positive social behavior and with peer acceptance (e.g., Chen,
Rubin, & Sun, 1992). More recently, however, Hart and colleagues (2000) found that social
reticence, defined as unoccupied and onlooking behavior, was associated with a lack of peer
acceptance, not only in young American children, but also among Russian and Chinese
youngsters. Relatedly, Chen et al. (Chen, Cen, Li, & He, 2005) reported that over the years,
since the early 1990s, shy, reserved behavior among Chinese elementary school children has
increasingly become associated with negative peer reputations. Chen and colleagues have
argued that the changing economic and political climate in China is being accompanied by
preferences for more assertive, yet competent, social behavior. In short, researchers would
do well not to generalize findings drawn from children of one cultural group to children
from another context. Moreover, changing socioeconomic climates may prove to have
significant influences on that which is deemed acceptable behavior by significant peers and
adults in the child’s environment.
Social Cognitive Correlates of Peer Acceptance and Rejection
In this section, we review research in which social cognition has been associated with
sociometric status. The majority of this research has been guided by social information-
processing models, such as those of Rubin and Rose-Krasnor (1992), Crick and Dodge
(1994), and Lemerise and Arsenio (2000). For a complete description of these models and
others, see Dodge, Coie et al., (2006).
Much research on social cognition and peer relationships has focused on rejected
children’s deficits or qualitative differences in performance at various stages of these social
information-processing models. For instance, when considering the motives or intentions of
others, rejected-aggressive children are more disposed than their popular counterparts to
assume that negative events are the product of malicious, malevolent intent on the part of
others (e.g., Dodge et al., 2003). This bias is evident when children are asked to make
attributions for others’ behaviors in situations where something negative has happened but
the motives of the instigator are unclear. In these ambiguous situations, rejected-aggressive
children appear unwilling to give a provocateur the benefit of the doubt—for example, by
assuming that the behavior occurred by accident. This “intention cue bias” is often suggested
as an explanation for why it is that aggressive and oppositional-defiant children choose to
solve their interpersonal problems in hostile and agonistic ways (e.g., see Orobio de Castro,
Veerman, Koops, Bosch, & Monshouwer, 2002, for a recent review).
But why would aggressive children think that when negative, but ambiguously caused
events befall them, the protagonist means them harm? In keeping with Lemerise and
Arsenio (2000), a transactional perspective would suggest that aggressive children, many of
whom are already rejected (and victimized) by their peers, believe that certain others do not
like them, those others have a history of rejecting of them or acting mean toward them, and
thus the negative act must be intentionally caused. This conclusion of intentional
malevolence is posited to elicit anger and a rapid fire response of reactive aggression. Many
researchers have found that when asked how they would react to an ambiguously caused
negative event, aggressive children respond with a choice of agonistic strategies (Orobio de
Castro et al., 2002). And aggressive children also regard aggression to be an effective and
appropriate means to meet their interactive goals (Vernberg, Jacobs, & Hershberger, 1999).
The processes leading to the enactment of aggression and the behavioral display itself no
doubt reinforces an already negative peer profile.
By the elementary and middle school years, many socially withdrawn children are
also rejected by their peers. Thus, one may ask whether these children view their social
worlds in ways that vary from those of nonwithdrawn and/or nonrejected children. To begin
with, when socially withdrawn 4- and 5-year-olds are asked how they would go about
obtaining an attractive object from another child, they produce fewer alternative solutions,
display more rigidity in generating alternative responses, and are more likely to suggest adult
intervention to aid in the solution of hypothetical social problems when compared to their
more sociable age-mates (Rubin, Daniels-Beirness, & Bream, 1984).
Rubin and colleagues (e.g., Rubin, Burgess, Kennedy, & Stewart, 2003) have argued
that as a result of frequent interpersonal rejection by peers, withdrawn children may begin to
attribute their social failures to internal causes. Supporting these notions, Rubin and Krasnor
(1986) found that extremely withdrawn children tended to blame social failure on personal,
dispositional characteristics rather than on external events or circumstances. These results
are in keeping with recent findings by Wichmann, Coplan, and Daniels (2004) who reported
that when 9- to 13-year-old withdrawn children were presented with hypothetical social
situations in which ambiguously caused negative events happened to them, they attributed
the events to internal and stable “self-defeating” causes. Moreover, withdrawn children
suggested that when faced with such negative situations, they were more familiar with failure
experiences and that a preferred strategy would be to withdraw and escape.
Given the earlier noted conceptual associations between social withdrawal,
victimization, and peer rejection, the findings by Wichmann et al. (2004) are reminiscent of
work by Graham and Juvonen (1998). These latter researchers reported that youngsters who
identified themselves as victimized by peers tended to blame themselves for their peer
relationship problems. And Nolen-Hoeksema, Girgus, and Seligman (1992) have argued that
self-blame can lead to a variety of negative outcomes of an internalizing nature, such as
depression, low self-esteem, and withdrawal, thereby suggesting a self-reinforcing cycle of
negative socioemotional functioning.
Self-System Correlates of Peer Acceptance and Rejection.
An important repercussion that has been ascribed to negative experiences with peers is their
effect on the self-concept. Indeed, researchers have consistently reported that it is mainly
rejected-withdrawn children who believe they have poor social skills and relationships
(Hymel, Bowker, & Woody, 1993). Rejected-aggressive children do not report thinking
poorly about their social competencies or their relationships with peers (Zakriski & Coie,
Given rejected-withdrawn children’s negative perceptions of their social
competencies and relationships, and given their negative experiences in the peer group, it is
not surprising that these children report more loneliness and social detachment than popular
children or children who are rejected but aggressive (e.g., Gazelle & Ladd, 2003). These
relations have been reported throughout childhood and early adolescence (e.g., Crick &
Ladd, 1993). A further distinction between rejected children is the chronicity of their peer
problems. Whereas rejection is temporary for some children, it is an enduring experience for
others. Ladd and Troop-Gordon (2003) showed that chronic rejection was related to
subsequent views of the self and that these negative self-perceptions partially mediated the
relation between peer difficulties and internalizing problems and loneliness.
Children’s Friendships: Correlates and Individual Differences.
Beginning with the correlates of friendship involvement, researchers have found that the lack
of a best friendship, whether at a given point in time or chronically, can be accompanied by
numerous risks. Friendless children are more likely to be lonely and victimized by peers
(e.g., Brendgen, Vitaro, & Bukowski, 2000). Chronic friendlessness during childhood has
been associated contemporaneously with social timidity, sensitivity, and the lack of social
skills (Parker & Seal, 1996; Wojslawowicz Bowker et al., 2006), and predictively with
subsequent internalizing problems (Ladd & Troop-Gordon, 2003).
Friendship dissolution may have a serious impact on children’s adjustment.
Disruptions of close peer relationships have been associated with depression, loneliness,
guilt, and anger (e.g., Laursen et al., 1996; Parker & Seal, 1996). In addition, friendship loss
in early adolescence may be particularly painful, due to the special role of friends’ loyalty
during this developmental period (Buhrmester & Furman, 1987). Recently, Wojslawowicz
Bowker et al. (2006) reported that 10- and 11-year-old children who had a best friend at the
beginning of the school year but who lost that friendship and failed to replace it by the end
of the school year were at increased risk for victimization by peers. Thus, it may be that if a
dissolved best friendship is not replaced, the “advantages” of once having a best friend may
Individual child characteristics are also related to the prevalence of friendship and
the quality of their dyadic relationships with peers. Given that many rejected children appear
to be aggressive and/or withdrawn, it is surprising to note that few investigators have
examined the friendships of these children. Not all aggressive and withdrawn children and
certainly not all rejected children experience later adjustment difficulties. Thus, the best
friendships of these children may function protectively and buffer them from later problems.
Alternately, some best friendships may actually serve to exacerbate existing problems. An
example of the protective role that friendship may play for children who have difficulties in
the peer group may be drawn from research by Hodges, Boivin, Vitaro, and Bukowski
(1999). These researchers found that peer victimization predicted increases in internalizing
and externalizing difficulties during the school year for those children who lacked a mutual
best friendship. The relation between peer victimization, internalizing, and externalizing
problems was nonsignificant for children who possessed a mutual best friendship, thereby
suggesting that friendship may function protectively for children who are victimized by their
We now compare the friendships of those children who appear at greatest risk for
peer rejection (i.e., those who have been identified as aggressive or socially withdrawn) with
their age-mates who have do not evidence such behavioral or psychological difficulties.
Friendship prevalence and quality. Investigators have shown that the majority of
aggressive children have a mutual best friendship and are as likely as well-adjusted children
to have mutual friends (e.g., Vitaro, Brendgen, & Tremblay, 2000). Aggression, however,
does seem to be negatively related to friendship stability (e.g., Hektner et al., 2000).
Moreover, aggressive children have friends who are more aggressive and their relationships
are more confrontational and antisocial in quality (e.g., Dishion, Eddy, Haas, Li, &
Spracklen, 1997). High levels of relational aggression (e.g., threatening friendship
withdrawal) within the friendship, and high levels of exclusivity/jealously, and intimacy
characterize the friendships of relationally aggressive children. In contrast, overtly aggressive
children direct their overt aggression outside their friendship dyads, and report low levels of
intimacy (Grotpeter & Crick, 1996).
The prevalence of best friendships among young socially withdrawn children is not
significantly different from that among nonwithdrawn children (Ladd & Burgess, 1999), and
approximately 60% of withdrawn 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds have reciprocated, stable
friendships (e.g., Rubin, Wojslawowicz, et al., 2006). These data suggest that social
withdrawal and shyness are individual characteristics that do not influence the formation,
prevalence, and maintenance of friendship in childhood. In terms of relationship quality
however, it has been shown that the friendships of withdrawn children are viewed as
relatively lacking in fun, intimacy, helpfulness and guidance, and validation and caring
(Rubin, Wojslawowicz, et al., 2006). These findings suggest a “misery loves company”
scenario for withdrawn children and their best friends. One may conjure up images of
victimized friends coping poorly in the world of peers, images reflected in recent newspaper
and television accounts of peer victimization and its untimely consequences.
There is some evidence to suggest that socially withdrawn children are more likely
than their age-mates to be chronically friendless. In a summer camp study conducted by
Parker and Seal (1996), chronically friendless children were rated by their peers to be more
shy and timid, to spend more time playing alone, and to be more sensitive than children who
possessed a mutual best friendship during the summer camp program. Additionally,
counselors rated these friendless children as less mature, less socially skilled, and as
displaying more withdrawn and anxious behaviors than children with friends.
Distal Predictors of Children’s Social Skills and Peer Relationships.
The quality of children’s extrafamilial social lives is likely a product of factors internal and
external to the child. Drawing from Hinde (1987), for example, it seems reasonable to
suggest that such individual characteristics as biological or dispositional factors (e.g.,
temperament; self-regulatory mechanisms) may influence children’s peer interactions and
relationships. It is equally plausible that the interactions and relationships children experience
with their parents are important.
Temperament. Temperament has been construed as constitutionally based individual
differences in emotional, motoric, and attentional reactivity and the regulation thereof
(Rothbart, Ellis, & Posner, 2004). Researchers who study temperament report that
individuals differ not only in the ease with which positive and negative emotions may be
aroused (emotionality) but also in the ease with which emotions, once aroused, can be regulated
(Rothbart et al., 2004). In some respects, a better term for emotionality is reactivity in that
most research on the phenomenon is focused on the extent to which children react to
situations or events with anger, irritability, or fear. And again, most contemporary
researchers have been interested in the ways in which reactive responses can be self-regulated.
Thus, researchers have centered on the effortful self-control of emotional, behavioral, and
attentional processes (Sanson, Hemphill, & Smart, 2004).
The constructs of difficult temperament, activity level, inhibition, and sociability
merit special attention in the study of peer interactions and relationships. Difficult
temperament refers to the frequent and intense expression of negative affect (Thomas &
Chess, 1977). Fussiness and irritability would be characteristic of a “difficult” infant or
toddler. In reactivity/regulation terminology, the difficult child is one whose negative
emotions are easily aroused and difficult to soothe or regulate. The highly active
baby/toddler is one who is easily excited, motorically facile, and highly reactive. Inhibited
infants/toddlers are timid, vigilant, and fearful when faced with novel social stimuli; like the
other groups of children, their emotions are easily aroused and difficult to regulate. Finally,
children who are outgoing and open in response to social novelty are described as sociable
Each of these temperamental characteristics is relatively stable, and each is related to
particular constellations of social behaviors that we described earlier as characteristic of
either popular or rejected children. Infants and toddlers who have been identified as having
difficult and/or active temperament, or as emotionally reactive are more likely to behave in
aggressive, impulsive ways in early childhood (e.g., Rubin, Burgess, Dwyer, & Hastings,
2003). Contemporaneous and predictive connections between negative emotionality and/or
difficult temperament and children’s aggressive and oppositional behavior have been
discovered by researchers the world over (e.g., Russell, Hart, Robinson, & Olson, 2003).
And, as we noted earlier, undercontrolled, impulsive, and aggressive behavior is associated
contemporaneously and predictively with peer relationships characterized by rejection.
Similarly, behavioral inhibition, an individual trait identified in toddlerhood predicts
the display of shyness and socially reticent behavior in early childhood (Rubin, Burgess, &
Hastings, 2002). Shy, socially reticent children display less socially competent and prosocial
behaviors, employ fewer positive coping strategies, and are more likely to develop anxiety
problems than their nonreticent age-mates (e.g., Coplan et al., 1994). Moreover, reticence
and social withdrawal predict peer rejection and victimization from as early as the preschool
years (e.g., Gazelle & Ladd, 2003).
It has been suggested that dispositional characteristics related to emotion regulation
may lay the basis for the emergence of children’s social behaviors and relationships. For
example, Rubin, Coplan, Fox, and Calkins (1995) have argued that the social consequences
of emotion dysregulation vary in accord with the child’s behavioral tendency to approach
and interact with peers during free play. They found that sociable children whose approach
behaviors lacked regulatory control were disruptive and aggressive; those who were sociable
but able to regulate their emotions were socially competent. Unsociable children who were
good emotion regulators appeared to suffer no ill effects from their lack of social behavior.
Yet, unsociable children who were poor emotion regulators were more behaviorally anxious
and wary and more reticent than constructive when playing alone. Thus, emotionally
dysregulated preschoolers may behave in ways that will elicit peer rejection and inhibit the
development of qualitatively adaptive friendships. Further, this is the case for emotionally
dysregulated sociable as well as unsociable children (see also Eisenberg, Cumberland, et al.,
2001; Fabes, Hanish, Martin, & Eisenberg, 2002). Relatedly, researchers have found that the
abilities to regulate negative emotions and to inhibit the expression of undesirable affect and
behavior (regulatory control) are associated with, and predictive of, social competence and
peer acceptance (e.g., Eisenberg, Pidada, & Liew, 2001), findings that are consistent across
cultures (e.g., Zhou, Eisenberg, Wang, & Reiser, 2004).
It is important to note that very little is known about the associations between
temperament and aspects of friendship. When compared to highly emotional children, some
findings indicate that sociable children have more positive relationships with friends (e.g.,
Pike & Atzaba-Poria, 2003). Dunn and Cutting (1999), in a study of young children, found
that negative emotionality was associated with the observed frequency of failed social bids
and with less amity directed to the best friend; as a counterpoint, children showed less amity
to friends who were inhibited or shy.
The parent-child attachment relationship. A basic premise of attachment theory is that the
early mother-infant relationship lays the groundwork for children’s understanding of, and
participation in, subsequent extrafamilial relationships. And, since the quality of attachment
relationships with the mother may vary, subsequent social success and relationships with
peers is expected to vary as well. For a thorough review of attachment theory in relation to
peer relationships, the reader is directed to Rubin and Burgess (2202). Studies of attachment
and peer relationships have demonstrated that securely attached infants are more likely than
their insecure counterparts to demonstrate socially competent behaviors amongst peers
during the toddler (e.g., Pastor, 1981), preschool (e.g., Booth, Rose-Krasnor, & Rubin,
1991), and elementary school periods (e.g., Elicker, Englund, & Sroufe, 1992). Insecure
babies, especially those classified as avoidant, later exhibit more hostility, anger, and
aggressive behavior in preschool settings than their secure counterparts (e.g., Burgess,
Marshall, Rubin, & Fox, 2003). Insecure-ambivalent infants are more easily frustrated, and
socially inhibited at 2 years than their secure age-mates (e.g., Fox & Calkins, 1993). Finally,
evidence that disorganized/disoriented attachment status in infancy predicts the subsequent
display of aggression amongst preschool and elementary school peers derives from several
sources (e.g., Lyons-Ruth, Easterbrooks, & Cibelli, 1997).
It is also the case that secure and insecure attachments, as assessed in early and
middle childhood, as well as in early adolescence are associated contemporaneously with and
predictive of adaptive and maladaptive social behaviors respectively. For example, children
who experience a secure relationship with their mothers (and fathers) have been found to be
more sociable and competent than their insecure counterparts, whilst insecure children
exhibit more aggression and withdrawal (Allen, Moore, Kuperminc, & Bell, 1998; Rose-
Krasnor, Rubin, Booth, & Coplan, 1996).
If the quality of the attachment relationship is associated with, and predictive of,
patterns of social interaction, it seems logical to propose a relation between attachment
status and the child’s standing in the peer group. In a recent meta-analysis of the extant
literature on links between attachment and peer acceptance, Schneider, Atkinson, and Tardiff
(2001) found a small-to-moderate effect size between these domains. Importantly however,
Schneider et al. (2001) found a larger effect size linking attachment security with friendship
than with peer relationships more generally. Booth, Rubin, Rose-Krasnor, and Burgess
(2004), argue that although associations between attachment security and social competence
and peer acceptance are theoretically meaningful, there is an even more compelling rationale
for the link between attachment security and friendship. From attachment theory, one would
expect that the trust and intimacy characterizing secure child-parent relationships should
produce an internalized model of relationship expectations that affects the quality of
relationships with friends. In support, secure parent-child attachment in late childhood and
early adolescence is associated positively (and contemporaneously) with positive qualities of
children’s close peer relationships (Lieberman, Doyle, & Markiewicz, 1999).
Parental beliefs and children’s social behaviors and peer relationships. Parents’ ideas, beliefs,
and perceptions about the development and maintenance of children’s social behaviors and
relationships predict, and presumably partially explain the development of socially adaptive
and maladaptive interactive behaviors and peer relationships in childhood. This is true
because parents’ child-rearing practices represent a behavioral expression of their ideas about
how children become socially competent, how family contexts should be structured to shape
children’s behaviors, and how and when children should be taught to initiate and maintain
relationships with others (Bugental & Happaney, 2002). These ideas about child rearing and
about what is acceptable and unacceptable child behavior in the social world are culturally
determined. Extended discussions of such cultural determination may be found in Rubin and
Investigators have shown that parents of socially competent children believe that, in
early childhood, they should play an active role in the socialization of social skills via
teaching and providing peer interaction opportunities (Rubin, Mills, & Rose-Krasnor, 1989).
They believe also that when their children display maladaptive behaviors, it is due to
transitory and situationally caused circumstances. Parents whose preschoolers display socially
incompetent behaviors, alternatively, are less likely to endorse strong beliefs in the
development of social skills (Rubin et al., 1989). Furthermore, they are more likely to
attribute the development of social competence to internal factors, to believe that
incompetent behavior is difficult to alter, and to believe that interpersonal skills are best
taught through direct instructional means (Rubin et al., 1989).
The child as parental belief evocateur. There is growing evidence that parental beliefs may
be evoked by child characteristics and behavior, and that parental beliefs and child
characteristics influence each other in a reciprocal manner (Bornstein, 2002). For example, in
the case of aggressive children, any hostile behavior, whether directed at peers, siblings, or
parents may evoke (a) strong parental feelings of anger and frustration (Eisenberg, Gershoff,
et al., 2001) and (b) biased attributions that “blame” the child’s noxious behavior on traits,
intentions, and motives internal to the child (e.g., Strassberg, 1995). These parental
cognitions and emotions, predict the use of power assertive and restrictive disciplinary
techniques (Coplan, Hastings, Lagace-Seguin, & Moulton, 2002). This type of low warmth-
high control parental response, mediated by affect and beliefs/cognitions about the
intentionality of the child behavior, the historical precedence of child aggression, and the
best means to control child aggression, is likely to evoke negative affect and cognitions in the
child. The result of this interplay between parent and child beliefs, affects, and behavior may
be the reinforcement and extension of family cycles of hostility (e.g., Granic & Lamey,
Parental reactions to social wariness and fearfulness are less well understood.
Researchers have found that when children produce a high frequency of socially wary,
withdrawn behaviors their parents (a) recognize this as a problem; (b) express feelings of
concern, sympathy, guilt, embarrassment, and, with increasing child age, a growing sense of
frustration; and (c) are more inclined than parents of nonwary children to attribute their
children’s social reticence to dispositional traits (Hastings & Rubin, 1999). Perhaps in an
attempt to regulate their own expressed guilt and embarrassment emanating from their
children’s ineffectual behaviors, mothers of socially withdrawn preschoolers indicate that
they would react to their children’s displays of social withdrawal by providing them with
protection and direct instruction (Mills & Rubin, 1998).
Parenting behaviors, children’s social skills, and peer relationships. Parental discipline of
unacceptable, maladaptive peer-directed behaviors has also been associated with their
children’s peer relationships. Parents (usually mothers) of unpopular and/or peer rejected
children have been reported to use inept, intrusive, harsh, and authoritarian disciplinary and
socialization practices more frequently than those of their more popular counterparts (e.g.,
McDowell & Parke, 2000). Alternately, parents of popular children use more feelings-
oriented reasoning and induction, responsivity, warm control (authoritative), and positivity
during communication than their unpopular counterparts (e.g., Mize & Pettit, 1997).
With regard to parenting behavior and children’s socially incompetent behaviors,
researchers have shown consistently that aggressive children have parents who model and
inadvertently reinforce aggressive and impulsive behavior, and who are cold and rejecting,
physically punitive, and inconsistent in their disciplinary behaviors. In addition to parental
rejection and the use of high power-assertive and inconsistent disciplinary strategies, parental
permissiveness, indulgence, and lack of supervision have often been found to correlate with
children’s aggressive behavior (see Rubin & Burgess, 2002 for a review). Importantly, these
findings appear to have cross-cultural universality (e.g., Cheah & Rubin, 2004).
Research concerning the parenting behaviors and styles associated with social
withdrawal focuses clearly on two potential socialization contributors—overcontrol and
overprotection. Parents who use high power-assertive strategies and who place many
constraints on their children tend to rear shy, reserved, and dependent children. Thus, the
issuance of parental commands combined with constraints on exploration and independence
may hinder the development of competence and deprive the child of opportunities to
interact with peers. It should not be surprising that children who are socially withdrawn are
on the receiving end of parental overcontrol and overprotection (e.g., Rubin, Burgess, &
Hastings, 2002). These findings concerning parental overcontrol and restriction stem from
very few studies, most of which center on young children. Furthermore, the contexts in
which parents of socially withdrawn children display overcontrol and overprotection have
not been well specified.
Parenting behaviors and children’s social competence: A model. In summary, there is some
support for the contention that parental behavior is associated, not only with the
development of children’s social competence, but also with their peer relationships. The
assumption has been that parenting leads to social competence or incompetence, which in
turn leads to peer acceptance or rejection. This causal model has been tested in a number of
Dishion (1990) examined the relations among grade-school boys’ sociometric status,
academic skills, antisocial behavior, and several elements of parental discipline practices and
family circumstances. Causal modeling suggested that the relation between inept parenting
and peer rejection was mediated by boys’ antisocial behavior and academic difficulties:
Lower levels of parental skill were associated with higher levels of antisocial behavior and
lower levels of academic performance; antisocial behavior and poor academic performance,
in turn, were associated with higher levels of peer rejection. These findings have been
replicated and extended in a similar study conducted in the People’s Republic of China
(Chen & Rubin, 1994).
There is also the possibility that the link between parenting and child outcomes of an
adaptive or maladaptive nature can be attenuated by the quality of the child’s status in the
peer group or the quality of his or her friendships. For example, the longitudinal relation
between harsh parenting and negative outcomes of an externalizing nature is augmented
when children have poor peer relationships (e.g., Lansford, Criss, Pettit, Dodge, & Bates,
2003). Recent research findings also indicate that an insecure attachment relationship may
predict difficulties of an externalizing or internalizing nature, but only for those children or
young adolescents who lack friendship or qualitatively rich friendship (e.g., Rubin, Dwyer, et
al., 2004). Thus, in recent models pertaining to the links between parenting and adaptive or
maladaptive outcome, it appears as if, by middle to late childhood, children’s friendships may
buffer or exacerbate the statistical associations.
CHILDHOOD PEER EXPERIENCES AND LATER ADJUSTMENT
Our goal, in this section, is to provide a summary of research in which the primary focus has
been to identify aspects of childhood peer relationship experiences at the dyadic and group
levels that predict subsequent adaptation and maladaptation. Here, we focus only on studies
in which prospective, follow-forward designs have been employed. A lengthy overview of
retrospective studies may be found in Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker (1998).
It has been shown that adjustment to school derives from several aspects of children’s
relationships with peers. Wentzel and Asher (1995) found that popular children were viewed
as helpful, good students. Rejected/aggressive students, relative to average and
rejected/submissive children, showed little interest in school, were perceived by teachers as
dependent, and were seen by peers and teachers as inconsiderate, noncompliant, and prone
to causing trouble in school. These findings were consistent with longitudinal findings
reported by Ollendick, Weist, Borden, and Greene (1992) who showed that children who
were actively disliked by their peers were anywhere from two to seven times more likely to
fail a subsequent grade than better accepted children. Similarly, Coie, Lochman, Terry, and
Hyman (1992) found that higher levels of rejection predicted later grade retention and
poorer adjustment after the transition to middle school. Given these longitudinal
connections between peer rejection and later poor school performance, it is not surprising to
learn that children who have troubled relationships with their peers are more likely to drop
out of school than are other children (Ollendick et al., 1992).
Factors other than peer rejection appear to be important also. Most notably
friendships appear to influence school adjustment. For example, Kindermann (1993) found
that children typically associated with peers who had a motivational orientation similar to
their own. Recently, Hymel, Comfort, Schonert-Reichl, and McDougall (2002) noted that
adolescents who drop out of school are more likely than other students to have associated
with peers who do not regard school as useful and important. These findings are important
because they show that friendships via peer group norms can influence academic adjustment.
In two studies, the effect of early adolescent friendship was demonstrated clearly and
in richer ways than seen previously. Berndt, Hawkins, and Jiao (1999) showed that
adjustment to junior high school was facilitated by engagement in friendships that were
stable and of high quality (e.g., rated as high in closeness and support). Wentzel, McNamara-
Barry, and Caldwell (2004) also examined friendship and the adjustment to a junior high
school. They showed that friendless children were lower in prosocial behavior and higher in
affective distress both concurrently and 2 years later. They noted that friends’ characteristics
can act as a form of social motivation that can either increase or decrease an early
adolescent’s adjustment to school.
Similar friendship factors seem to be important with younger children also. Ladd and
colleagues (Ladd, 1990, 1991; Ladd, Kochenderfer, & Coleman, 1996, 1997) have
demonstrated that children with many friends at the time of elementary school entry
developed more favorable attitudes toward school in the early months than children with
fewer friends. Those who maintained their friendships also liked school better as the year
went by. Findings also revealed positive associations between children’s perceptions of best
friendship quality in kindergarten and later indices of scholastic adjustment (school-related
affect, perceptions, involvement, and performance) in grade school.
Externalizing problems. Results of longitudinal studies have indicated that peer
rejection in childhood predicts a wide range of externalizing problems in adolescence,
including delinquency, conduct disorder, attention difficulties, and substance abuse (e.g.,
Ollendick et al., 1992). These findings are not particularly surprising given the well-
established link between aggression and peer rejection, and especially given that aggressive-
rejected children are more likely to remain rejected over time. Importantly, research has
shown that early peer rejection provides a unique increment in the prediction later antisocial
outcomes, even when controlling for previous levels of aggression and externalizing
problems (e.g., Laird, Jordan, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 2001; Miller-Johnson, Coie, Maumary-
Gremaud, Bierman, & Conduct Problems Prevention Research, 2002).
Given the less than perfect stability of rejected status, it would seem reasonable to
ask whether psychological risk status is equivalent for children with chronic versus episodic
and transient rejection by peers. To address this question, Miller-Johnson et al. (2002)
showed that peer rejection in first grade added incrementally to the prediction of early
starting conduct problems in third and fourth grades, over and above the effects of
aggression. Similarly, Dodge and colleagues (2003) reported that peer rejection predicted
longitudinal “growth” in aggression over time from early to middle childhood, and from
middle childhood to adolescence. These researchers also found a developmental pathway in
which peer rejection led to more negative information processing patterns (i.e., hostile cue
interpretation), which led to increased aggression. Certainly part of the association between
rejection and externalizing involves the network of peer involvement experiences by rejected
children. Brendgen, Vitaro, and Bukowski (1998) showed that rejected children were more
likely than other boys and girls to associate with delinquent peers and that these associations
accounted for their subsequent delinquency. Consistent with expectations related to the
process of deviancy training, at-risk children, especially boys, who have aggressive friends
appear to influence each other with reinforcements and enticements (Bagwell & Coie, 2004),
which increases each other’s aggression. These mechanisms also appear to account for the
development of substance abuse problems also (e.g., Dishion, Capaldi, & Yoerger, 1999).
Internalizing problems. Results from a growing number of studies have indicated that
anxious-withdrawal is contemporaneously and predictively associated with internalizing
problems during the life span, including low self-esteem, anxiety problems, loneliness, and
depressive symptoms (e.g., Coplan, Prakash, O’Neil, & Armer, 2004). In a longitudinal study
from kindergarten (age 5 years) to the ninth grade (age 14 years), Rubin and colleagues
reported that withdrawal in kindergarten and second grade predicted peer rejection, self-
reported feelings of depression, loneliness, and negative self-worth and teacher ratings of
anxiety in the fifth grade (Hymel, Rubin, Rowden, & LeMare, 1990; Rubin & Mills, 1988). In
turn, social withdrawal in the fifth grade predicted self-reports of loneliness, depression,
negative self-evaluations of social competence, the lack of perceived peer social support, and
parental assessments of internalizing problems in the ninth grade (Rubin, Chen, McDougall,
Bowker, & McKinnon, 1995).
Researchers have also recently begun to explore the unique role of peer rejection in
the prediction of internalizing problems. For example, Kraatz-Keily, Bates, Dodge, and
Pettit (2000) reported that peer rejection predicted increases in both internalizing and
externalizing problems from kindergarten to grade 7. Children’s self-perceived rejection has
been associated with increases in internalizing problems over time (e.g., Kistner, Balthazor,
Risi, & Burton, 1999). Relatedly, Gazelle and Ladd (2003) found that shy-anxious
kindergarteners who were also excluded by peers displayed a greater stability in anxious
solitude through the fourth grade and had elevated levels of depressive symptoms as
compared to shy-anxious peers who did not experience peer exclusion. Further, Gazelle and
Rudolph (2004) recently found that in the 5
grades, high exclusion by peers led
anxious solitary youth to maintenance or exacerbate the extent of social avoidance and
depression; increased social approach and less depression resulted from the experience of
The majority of the research regarding friendship and subsequent internalizing
problems has considered the effects of friendship as either a moderator or as a mediator. In
addition to the previously described study by Hodges, Boivin, et al. (1999), Rubin et al.
(2004) demonstrated that when 10- to 11-year-olds reported difficulties in their relationships
with their mothers and fathers, having a strong supportive best friendship buffered them
from negative self-perceptions and internalizing problems.
The notion that friendship may buffer rejected children from negative outcomes has
been examined in a number of recent studies. However, the findings in these studies have
been somewhat counterintuitive. For example, Hoza, Molina, Bukowski, and Sippola (1995)
and Kupersmidt, Burchinal, and Patterson (1995) reported that having a best friend actually
augmented negative outcomes for children who were earlier identified as rejected and
aggressive. One explanation for these findings emanates from findings indicating that the
friendship networks of aggressive-rejected children comprise other aggressive children; the
existence of a friendship network supportive of maladjusted behavior may actually
exacerbate the prospects of a negative developmental outcome for rejected children (e.g.,
Cairns, Gariepy, & Kindermann, 1989).
In this chapter, we have examined the remarkable progress that has been made in describing
and explaining the features, processes, and effects of children’s experiences with their age-
mates. A consequence of this progress is that peer research must now answer new questions
and deal with new challenges. An additional repercussion of our progress is that the gaps in
our understanding of the peer system become clear. We address these concerns in this
concluding section. Specifically, we identify two current challenges and opportunities for
peer research, and we identify two topics that deserve more attention than they have
received in the past.
Two Critical Challenges
First, we propose that the efforts to study peer relationships as a system need to be
continued and intensified. The study of peer relationships has been frequently predicated on
the concept that peer relationships, however construed, must be viewed as either an
antecedent or consequence. Consistent with the view that development is a dynamic,
multidirectional process (Sameroff & MacKenzie, 2003), the study of peer relationships
needs to be understood as a complex system. Children bring various behaviors, needs, and
cognitions into their peer experiences at the dyadic and group level. In turn, these individual
characteristics affect the features of these experiences and the provisions that children derive
from these experiences leading to changes, for better or worse, in the child’s subsequent
short-term and long-term functioning. Although the study of transactional models of
development has been aided by the evolution of statistical procedures (e.g., structural
equation modeling, growth curve analyses, hierarchical linear modeling), the number of
investigations incorporating these models and techniques remains lower than one might
Second, the features and effects of experiences with peers need to be understood
according to the larger systems in which they are embedded and according to how they
interface with other systems. Opportunities for peer interaction and relationships vary from
one culture to another and different cultures ascribe different degrees of significance to
them. The “content” of peer interactions and relationships is likely to vary, for example, as a
function of how much power is ascribed to kinship structures and by who makes primary
decisions about allowable extrafamilial relationships. Because the defining features or
characteristics of what it means to be adapted to one’s social context will differ across
contexts, the impact on adaptation of particular characteristics of peer relationships is likely
to vary also. Finally, in a culture, the effect of the peer system is likely to vary according to
differences between children in provisions they obtain in their families.
Two Questions in Search of Answers.
In spite of its diversity and breadth, at least two fundamental aspects of peer interactions,
relationships, and groups are nearly absent from our review. First, what aspects of peer
interactions, relationships, and groups affect boys and girls differently? The study of sex
differences is covered sporadically throughout this chapter. There are many exemplary
studies of how peer interactions and relationships differ for boys and for girls. A central gap
in the literature is the understanding of whether some aspects of peer interactions and
relationships affect boys and girls differently. This question is not about whether there are
differences between the features of peer interactions and relationships of boys and girls.
Instead, it is concerned with potential differences in the functions and the developmental
significance of peer experiences for boys and girls. Knowing if and how the peer system
works differently for boys and girls would certainly add to our understanding of peer
relationships; it would augment our understanding of sexual differentiation as well.
Second, what are the provisions of peer relationships? Friendship, acceptance, and
popularity have been studied extensively. We know how to measure these constructs, and we
know a good deal about their antecedents and their consequences. Yet, we know little about
what it is that children and adolescents “get” from these relationships. To be sure there have
been theoretical propositions about why friendship is important and how acceptance and
rejection can influence child and adolescent development. But there have been few studies of
the specific opportunities and experiences that are afforded by friendship, acceptance, and
popularity. And there have been fewer studies of the significance of friendship and/or peer
acceptance and rejection for children who vary with regard to sex, ethnicity, and behavioral
characteristics. Certainly, the role of culture remains to be fully explored. This question is not
simply one of description. Research on friendship, for example, is based on claims about the
putative provisions of this relationship. Similar comments can be offered about acceptance
and, to a lesser extent, popularity. Further inquiries into what these experiences provide for
children would help us better understand the value of the theories we have relied on.
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