Starting Out Early: What Parents Need to Know About Peer Relationships

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Feb 11, 2009

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).
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