Peer acceptance is the degree to which a child or adolescent is socially accepted by peers. It includes the level of peer popularity and the ease with which a child or adolescent can initiate and maintain satisfactory peer relationships.
Peer acceptance and relationships are important to children's social and emotional development. Peer acceptance and friendship provide a wide range of learning and development opportunities for children. These include companionship, recreation, building social skills, participating in group problem solving, and managing competition and conflict. They also allow for self-exploration, emotional growth, and moral and ethical development. Parents, teachers, and other adults are a good source of social support for children, but it is among other children that kids learn how to interact with each other.
When examining peer acceptance among children, researchers usually look at two areas that are related to a child's psychological and social development. The first area is the child's social standing in the peer group as a whole and is indicated by the child's level of social acceptance by other members in the group, usually classmates. The second area is the child's individual friendships, characterized by both the quantity and quality of these friendships.
Although genes may be a factor in a child's social competence and level of peer acceptance, environmental factors are also extremely important. Some of the factors contributing to peer acceptance include:
- the quality of attachment between mother or primary caregiver and child during infancy
- during childhood, the quantity and quality of opportunities for interaction with different types of peers in different environments, such as in the family, at school, church, camp, activity centers, in sports, or in the neighborhood
- parenting style (A highly nurturing but moderately controlling authoritative parenting style is associated with the highest levels of social competence. By contrast, a low nurturing, highly controlling authoritarian parenting style is associated with children's aggressiveness, while the high nurturing but low-controlling permissive style is associated with failure to take responsibility for behavior.)
Regarding having friends, the academic benefits show up very early in a child's school career. Research suggests that those who start kindergarten from preschool with a friend in their class make a better adjustment to school than those who do not start with a friend. Furthermore, children who maintain their friendships as the school year progresses like school better, and children who make new friends make greater gains in school performance.
Infancy and toddlerhood
The first step in childhood affiliations is the categorization of people into groups. Although some researchers believe that the ability to categorize is an achievement of toddlerhood, others suggest it is present in infancy. In children, the top three categories of peer affiliation are age, sex, and race. Children do not appear to make racial distinctions before they are of preschool age but age and sex discriminations are made earlier. There is evidence that infants make categorical distinctions between males and females and between adults and children before they are a year old. Signs of a preferential attraction to others like the self also appear at an early age. Year-old infants are interested in and attracted to other infants—including those they have never met before—at an age when they are wary of strange adults. By the age of two, they begin to show a preference for children of their own sex. There is also research that suggests the quality of attachment between mothers or primary caregivers during infancy can contribute to peer acceptance later in childhood.
Customs of child rearing and patterns of parent-infant interaction vary widely from culture to culture, but the children's playgroup is universal. If the number of children in a given locality is small, the playgroup will consist of children of both sexes and a range of ages; if the number is larger, the children generally divide up into age- and sex-segregated groups. Girls' groups tend to be split up into subgroups. It is the social category, or psychological group that is important here. Children can categorize themselves as members of a social category even if it does not assemble in one place.
It is important to recognize the role of the peer group in maintaining a preschool-age child's level of social acceptance. Once a child has established a reputation among peers either as someone with whom it is fun to play or as someone with whom joint play is unpleasant or dissatisfying, this reputation may influence the way other children perceive the child's later behavior. If a negative reputation is developed, helping the child become accepted may require more than a change in the child's behavior; it may also be necessary to point out to the other children when the child's behavior changes and to guide them to respond to the child in positive ways.
Research on imaginary companions suggests that young children who create them do so to compensate for poor social relationships, according to a study published in the May 2004 issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Development. As a result, there is less peer acceptance of children with imaginary companions. Several other studies have shown that fantasy play is also related to peer acceptance in children in preschool. Using a scoring system that included the reality and unfamiliarity levels of fantasy play, researchers found players who scored high had higher self-ratings of peer acceptance than did average scoring fantasy players. However, the high scoring fantasy players had lower teacher ratings of peer acceptance than the average scoring fantasy players. Researchers suggest the difference may occur because the high scoring fantasy players were unable to distinguish imagined popularity from actual peer acceptance.
In school-aged children, factors such as physical attractiveness, cultural traits, and disabilities greatly affect the level of peer acceptance, with a child's degree of social competence being the best predictor of peer acceptance. The peer groups of adolescence, especially teens, are often based on athletic, social, or academic interests and abilities; on distinctions of race, ethnicity, and social class; and on proclivities such as drug use and delinquency. Children who are peer-accepted or popular have fewer problems in middle and high school, and teens who are peer-accepted have fewer emotional and social adjustment problems as adults. Peer-accepted children may be shy or assertive, but they often have well-developed communication skills.
Peer-accepted children tend to be able to function in the following ways:
- Correctly interpret other children's body language and tone of voice. Well-liked children can distinguish subtleties in emotions. For example, they can distinguish between anger directed toward them and anger directed toward a parent.
- Directly respond to the statements and gestures of other children. Well-liked children will say other children's names, establish eye contact, and use touch to get attention.
- Give reasons for their own statements, gestures, and actions. For example, well-liked children will explain why they want to do something the other child does not want to do.
- Cooperate with, show tact towards, and compromise with other children, demonstrating the willingness to subordinate the self by modifying behavior and opinions in the interests of others. For example, when joining a new group where a conversation is already in progress, well-liked children will listen first, establishing a tentative presence in the group before speaking, even if it is to change the subject.
These skills are crucial in initiating and maintaining relationships and in resolving conflicts. By contrast, rejected children tend either towards aggressive, antisocial behavior or withdrawn, depressive behavior. They also do not listen well, tend not to offer reasons for their behavior, do not positively reinforce their peers, and have trouble cooperating. Antisocial children interrupt people, dominate other children, and either verbally or physically attack them. Depressive or withdrawn children may be excessively reserved, submissive, anxious, and inhibited. Competitiveness or dominance by itself is not necessarily indicative of low peer acceptance. In fact, popular children tend to have characteristics associated with both competitiveness and friendliness.
The need to be "one of the gang" is stronger as children approach the teen years than at any other age. Children of all ages need to feel that they fit in—that they belong.
Children learn to relate to peers by engaging in peer relationships. Some children have problems making friends or "fitting in." Often a vicious circle develops where a rejected child is given fewer and fewer opportunities by his peers to relate and thereby learn new skills. Lack of opportunity to participate normally in peer interaction is especially a problem for children who differ in some obvious way, either culturally, racially, or through some mental or physical disability. Parents and teachers should address issues of peer acceptance as early as possible in order to prevent loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.
In addition to providing direct social skills training or counseling for the child with peer acceptance problems, parents and teachers can create opportunities for non-threatening social interaction to occur. Though children should never be forced to play together since this can create the rejection it is intended to remedy, popular and less-popular preschoolers can be encouraged to interact with one another. For example, a less sociable child may be encouraged to answer and ask questions of others. Older children should be provided opportunities to interact in smaller groups and in one-on-one situations, where it may be easier to try out new behaviors and make up for social mistakes. Shy or withdrawn children can be encouraged to develop outside interests that will place them in structured contact with others. In school, peer helping programs and collaborative learning provide opportunities for popular and less-popular children to work together. Ideally, collaboration should highlight the less-popular students' strengths, such as special interests and talents, rather than weaknesses. At any age, the small, positive changes in behavior should be reinforced with attention and praise.
Peer rejection in childhood often brings with it serious emotional difficulties. Rejected children are frequently discontent with themselves and with their relationships with other children. Many of these children experience strong feelings of loneliness and social dissatisfaction. Rejected children also report lower self-esteem and may be more depressed than other children. Peer rejection is also predictive of later life problems, such as dropping out of school, juvenile delinquency, and mental health problems. Dropping out of school seems to be a particularly frequent outcome. Results from research indicate that, on average, about 25 percent of low-accepted children drop out of school compared to 8 percent of other children, according to the National Network for Child Care at Iowa State University.
There are various reasons why children are disliked by their peers. When trying to find ways to help these children, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about what they do that bothers others. This focuses only on reducing these behavior problems but most rejected children also lack important social skills. They may not cooperate or be responsive to others, or they may not know how to respond in certain social situations. Teaching a child the missing skills is often more effective in improving peer relationships than working only on reducing negative behavior.
Fantasy play—Play activities in which children act out their fantasies.
Gene—A building block of inheritance, which contains the instructions for the production of a particular protein, and is made up of a molecular sequence found on a section of DNA. Each gene is found on a precise location on a chromosome.
Primary caregiver—A person who is responsible for the primary care and upbringing of a child.
When to call the doctor
Parents may need to seek professional psychological help for children who suffer from peer rejection, especially when the child is depressed or shows overly aggressive behavior. Help may also be needed for adolescents whose acceptance by peers relates to common
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Ken R. Wells