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6 November 2000
Childhood Friendships Are Training Ground For Adult Relationships
by George Atkinson

All it takes is one best friend to stave off the loneliness and depression of a child, even if that youngster is considered an outsider with the "in crowd" of peers, according to UMaine psychologists studying childhood friendships.

The key is in helping children establish high-quality friendships that provide validation, intimacy, companionship and conflict resolution skills. Such intervention, the researchers say, begins with involved parents.

"We have found that, even if a child is not accepted by the larger group, one close friendship can serve as a buffer to loneliness and depression," says Cynthia Erdley, associate professor of psychology.

"We know that children who are rejected by their peer group are at risk for a variety of negative outcomes that have implications for their psychological adjustment as adults. More recent studies are beginning to uncover similar risks for children who fail to develop close friendships. For instance, children without friends appear to be at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. However, many questions about just how friendship impacts adjustment remain."

Since the early '70s, when researchers became interested in group acceptance, it has been recognized that childhood friendships are not simply child's play but powerful predictors of social adjustment in adulthood. Yet through the years, studies have focused on children's group acceptance and popularity as primary determinants of future psychological adjustment, leaving childhood friendships an understudied area. The complex interrelationships between peer acceptance, friendship and adjustment are not adequately understood.

In their research, Erdley and Douglas Nangle, associate professor of psychology, are looking beyond the traditional theories of peer acceptance to explore the dynamics of children's friendships and the very definition of friendship among youngsters. A recent study by Nangle and Erdley was one of the first to explore the potential contributions of having more than one friendship, and friendship quality, to children's psychological adjustment. A book co-edited by the researchers, Friendship and Psychological Adjustment, will be published next summer.

"For the last 20 years, clinicians have looked at rejection by the peer group as a significant problem. Over this time, the therapeutic goal was to make the child more accepted by the peer group at large," says Nangle, a clinical child psychologist whose research focuses on child/adolescent peer relations and behavior therapy.

"Difficulties in changing children's peer acceptance and the new findings regarding friendship have led a number of peer relations experts to suggest that it may be more realistic to help children develop and maintain one or more close friendships.

"Children's friendships are the training grounds for important adult relationships, including marriage."

Close friendships are characterized by affection, a sense of reliable alliance and intimacy, the sharing of secrets and personal information. The experience of having a friend to confide in can promote feelings of trust, acceptance and sense of being understood. As a result, friendship mediates the link between acceptance and loneliness, say Erdley and Nangle.

Unlike close friendships, peer group acceptance offers children a sense of inclusion. Both social relationships offer nurturing and self-worth. But while peer acceptance influences children's feelings of belonging, friendships directly affect feelings of loneliness.

"Though researchers agree that reciprocated positive feelings are the central feature, there is a lack of consensus on how to formally identify and measure friendship," says Erdley, whose research focuses on social cognitive processes or the thoughts that underlie youngsters' social behavior. "Some of our research has been aimed at comparing the different methods used to measure friendship."

The younger the children, the more on-again, off-again their friendships and group acceptance. But by ages 10-11, patterns of acceptance, friendship and psychological adjustment begin to gel. During these transitional years for children, intimacy becomes more important in peer relations, especially between girls.

By adolescence, it is estimated that 70 percent of teens report having stable friendships.

"We should add that friendship is not always a good thing. The relationship between friendship and adjustment is a complicated one," says Nangle. "Children who get involved in more deviant peer networks are clearly at increased risk for poor outcomes."

It is important for parents to play an active role, say Nangle and Erdley. Good friendships don't just happen. Studies show an association between parental involvement in arranging children's peer contacts, and the social and academic adjustment of preschoolers and kindergartners. Parents who arrange play dates, enroll their children in structured activities, and monitor peer interactions appear to have more socially adept kids.

Warning signs that children may be lacking close friends include being unable to name specific close friends (or naming kids not really their friends), lack of incoming calls or invitations from peers, hanging out with friends who are significantly older or younger, and lack of regular peer contacts outside of school.

Though direct parental involvement should tail off as children develop, the need for monitoring remains. Knowing who children's friends are, where they are, what they are doing is important. Good communication and helping children negotiate problems in friendships also help, add Erdley and Nangle.

"As parents are increasingly pulled by work and other demands from the home, I wonder what will become of the close parental monitoring of peer interactions that used to be more commonplace," says Nangle.

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