The peer environment is an important part of early adolescent development. This period of development is characterized by important changes, including a new and growing focus on social interactions. This change in early adolescence is important because, if our young people are to become positive and successful adults, they need to develop positive social skills. We can help them to build these skills.
Experience and research tell us that early adolescent’s social skill development is influenced by their peer environment. The peer environment includes three important areas: 1) prosocial interactions with their peers, 2) access to prosocial activities and, 3) neighborhood and exposure to violence, drug use and crime.
Babies and toddlers can learn a lot from other children who are about 4-5 years older than them, less so if brothers and sisters are close in age. Toddlers learn much about interacting with other children, by setting opportunities to play: “Whoops, hitting some body with a toy doesn’t work too well.” Adults can use all the peer interactions to reinforce how to get along successfully in the world. Peer interactions also give a chance for toddlers to use things to play imaginatively and cooperative—especially if the things don’t require batteries or electricity.
Creating a healthy social environment for our children is important for their overall wellbeing. As children move through elementary school, making and keeping friends becomes an increasingly important part of children’s lives. Further, the decisions that children make and the behaviors that they display are greatly influenced by the friends that they have. Therefore, the types of friends that children have can play a very important role in their well-being.
Imagine being a first grader walking into a new classroom at a new school on the first day of school. You observe several groups of kids playing together and must decide which group to try and join. The first group of kids seems to be getting along well and playing nicely together. The other group of kids seems to push and hit each other, do not share toys well, and call each other mean names. For most of us, we would choose to play with the first group who we might consider to be the positive peers. These children are exhibiting prosocial behaviors, which includes behaviors that are beneficial to others[^1], cooperative, helpful, and generous[^2]. Kids who exhibit prosocial behavior are more likely to have friends, be accepted by peers, and encourage prosocial behaviors in each other. The other group of kids may be those that frequently exhibit disruptive or aggressive behaviors. These children are less likely to be accepted by the prosocial kids, which could have negative outcomes. These are typical examples of children’s behavior. Children who play nicely tend to play with similar children. Alternatively, many kids exhibit more aggressive behaviors tend to affiliate with other children who exhibit aggressive behaviors.[^3] For example, when your child hangs out with friends who don’t behave well and get into trouble, it increases the likelihood that your child will get into trouble too.[^3] So, as parents, we want to strongly encourage our children to choose prosocial peers and help them to develop prosocial behaviors in their interactions with others. Even in communities in which violence occurs frequently, having prosocial peers can help these children avoid participating in violent and antisocial behaviors.[^5]
- Prosocial peers, role models
- Access to healthy food, physical activities and entertainment
- Exposure to violence, drug use, crime
- Big Brothers Big Sisters
- Good Behavior Game
- Life Skills Training
- PATHS Preschool
- Positive Action
- Raising Healthy Children
- Strengthening Families 10-14
- The Incredible Years
[^1]: Eisenberg N, Fabes RA. Prosocial development. In: Eisenberg N, Damon W, eds. Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4: Social, emotional and personality development. Vol 5th. New York: Wiley; 1998:701-778. [^2]: Parker JG, Rubin KH, Erath SA, Wojslawowicz JC, Buskirk AA. Peer relationships, child development, and adjustment: A developmental psychopathology perspective In: Cicchetti D, Cohen DJ, eds. Developmental psychopathology: Theory and Method. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2006:421-477. [^3]: Farmer TW, Leung MC, Pearl R, Rodkin PC, Cadwallader TW, Van Acker R. Deviant or diverse peer groups? The peer affiliations of aggressive elementary students. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2002;94:611-620. [^4]: Buka, S.W., Stichick, T.L., Birdthistle, I., & Earls, F.J. (2001). Youth exposure to violence: Prevalence, risks, and consequences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71, 298–310.