Peer relationships, the relationships shared by children in the same age range, play an important role in children’s development (1, 2, 3). They offer unique opportunities for learning about the self and for the implementation of new social skills. Unfortunately, peer relationships may also be detrimental to the child. Between 5% and 10% of children experience chronic peer relationship difficulties, such as peer rejection (4) and peer harassment (5). Children experiencing peer relationship difficulties are at risk for a variety of future adjustment problems, including dropping out of school, delinquency and emotional problems (3, 6, 7, 8). However, the developmental processes leading to these later problems are still open to question. Are peer relation difficulties really causing these adjustment problems or are these problems resulting from enduring child characteristics (9)?

Peer Relationships In The Early Years

There has been much research aimed at understanding the nature, meaning and impact of peer relation problems (3). Most of this research effort has been centered on school-age children. These studies don’t consider the growing number of children exposed to peers early in their life through daycare (10). Thus, early peer relations should be an object of persistent attention. Preschoolers gradually form their perceptions about their friends and peers. At least by age four, they will reliably identify best friends, peers they like, and peers they dislike. Consequently, specific children may be disliked and negatively perceived by an entire preschool peer group (11, 12, 13). This could lead to various forms of negative behaviors toward these targeted children, such as control and domination, excessive teasing and general torment (14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19).

Determinants And Consequences of Early Peer Difficulties

  • Do these early peer difficulties lead to later personal difficulties? As of right now, the answer is unclear. Enduring peer relationship difficulties in childhood have been found to predict later problems such as loneliness, depression, and anxiety, as well as physical health and school problems (3, 10, 20). The evidence with preschool children is scarce, but points in the same direction (16, 17, 21). However, it is still unknown whether the early peer relationship problems examined in these studies will have long-term consequences.
  • What are the main determinants of early peer difficulties? Unusual physical attributes, such as speech problems and physical clumsiness, may contribute to peer relation difficulties. But children’s behavior seems to be the main source of these social difficulties. Aggressive behavior is the most commonly cited behavioral correlate of peer rejection in school settings (3, 22, 23). However, some aggressive children actually enjoy a fairly high peer status (24), especially in a group where aggressive behavior is either the norm or supported by the other children (25). This is more likely among preschool children, as preschool boys often use aggressive means to reach high status among their peers (26).

Are Shy Children More At Risk?

Shy and withdrawn children are also likely to experience peer rejection and victimization (27). However, the problems associated with these qualities are more likely to occur at a later age because the attributes of shyness and other forms of social anxiety are less salient and obvious to preschoolers. Even if particular behaviors become associated with peer difficulties during late childhood and adolescence (15), these characteristics are present and identifiable before entry to school (28). Identifying these behaviors early and assessing whether or not they lead to later difficulties may help in preventing peer relation problems later on. Close friendships, both in preschool and beyond, may protect children from both the occurrence and impact of negative peer experiences (28, 29, 30). These processes may also operate in preschool.

Conclusion

Individual differences in social and emotional adjustment may be noticed as soon as peer groups are formed. A significant number of preschoolers will experience peer relationship difficulties such as rejection and harassment, and these negative experiences could have an impact on their social and emotional adjustment and development. How are emergent social behaviors involved in determining peer relation issues? The answer isn’t always clear. Aggression is clearly involved, but in complex ways. Not only are these behaviors significantly associated with peer relationship difficulties, but they are also embedded in a social network that may promote aggressive tendencies. Other behavioral traits, such as shyness and a withdrawn attitude, might not be associated with peer difficulties in preschool, but may lead to peer rejection and victimization in late childhood. Clearly identifying the social and emotional traits that put children at risk for peer relation difficulties can aid in the establishment of more keenly focused support and prevention programs.

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