Psychosocial development: the influence of peers

Peer relationships are based on equality and social position. Not all of these relationships are positive. Some have a disruptive influence on development. This article discusses, among other things, the characteristics, dynamics, effects and influences of friendships. The term peers should be interpreted broadly: it does not mean exactly the same age, but the same level of social, emotional and cognitive development.

The characteristics, dynamics, effects, and influences of adolescent friendships

A friendship is a special kind of relationship between two people who like each other. Characterized by reciprocity between and involvement of the two persons who consider themselves equal in terms of feelings and orientation. Building and maintaining friendships is seen as a separate developmental task. Friends can provide support and serve as examples in developing other developmental tasks.

Characteristics of friends Best
friends occupy a specific position. Having best friends is seen by young people as something socially desirable. A distinction is made between reciprocal (calling each other best friend) and so-called unilateral (or desired , comes from one side) best friends. This distinction is important because young people are more influenced by unilateral best friends than by reciprocal best friends. The underlying explanation for this is that unilateral friends are people with whom a young person would like to become friends. In the young person’s experience, the chance of this increases if he or she resembles the desired friend. Therefore, his or her behavior is adapted to the behavior of the desired friend.

In contrast to relationships within families, friendships are entered into, changed and broken more often. Friendships play a major role in learning values and norms, developing perspective taking (the ability to see the point of view and experiences of others) and the development of the self and one’s own identity. Also social skills.

Sullivan (1953) claimed that at each stage of development a new social need arises that is, as it were, added to the already existing need and. In (pre)adolescence the need for interpersonal intimacy arises. Tenderness, companionship and acceptance developed in earlier phases.

Maccobu (1990) claimed that there are clear gender differences in the intimacy within friendships of girls and boys.

  1. Girls experience intimacy in their friendship relationships at a younger age than boys.
  2. Friendships between girls have a higher degree of intimacy.
  3. Intimacy is more common in girls than in boys.

Dynamics of Friendships The
difference between friendships in adolescence and childhood is the greater stability of friendships in adolescence. There is great variation in the duration of friendships during adolescence. Good quality friendships provide social and emotional support and will last a long time. The fact that boys’ friendships contain less intimacy does not mean that the quality is lower. Boys’ friendships are often based on doing activities together and less on exchanging inner feelings and thoughts, as with girls.

Conflicts are not necessarily detrimental to friendships, they can also have positive effects. Effects of conflict depend on the emotional distance between people in a relationship. When this is small, the effects of conflict are smaller: friends are more likely to resolve the conflict, which leads to a better quality of the relationship. This also provides social skills.

Effects of friendships

Three aspects regarding the effect of a friendship are important:
1. The meaning of having friends versus not having friends. Adolescents with friends are more socially competent and psychologically healthier . Better social skills, working together more and better, fewer social problems, higher self-esteem and less loneliness. It is not clear what is the cause and what is the effect.
2. The characteristics of friends. Friends are similar in terms of school- related attitudes, ambitions and intellect and self-esteem and perceived intelligence, drinking alcohol, smoking and sexual behavior, aggression and rule-breaking behavior. Equality can arise through two processes:

  • Selection: human preference or need to form relationships with others who are like us. This leads to positive confirmation and ultimately to confirmation of one’s own identity.
  • Mutual socialization: Friends see each other as role models and imitate each other’s behavior. In general, it is more likely that equality between friends is the result of selection processes.
  1. The quality of the friendship relationship: While equality is important for the development of friendships, equality hardly plays a role once the friendship has been established. Instead, the quality matters for the duration of the friendship. Quality of friendship is related to social functioning, self-esteem and loneliness. The existence of a discrepancy about the appreciation of the friendship is especially important.

    Influences of friendshipsPositive effects on psychological, social and emotional functioning.

  • Social: Learning to maintain an affective bond by opening up and working together, resolving conflicts.
  • Emotional: Exchanging intimate feelings and thoughts.
  • Cognitive development: little is known about it. Expressing and exchanging thoughts and cognitions. Metacognitive skills.

Friendships can also have negative influences. Depends, among other things, on the characteristics of friends and the quality of the friendship relationship. Frequent conflict in a friendship relationship can lead to a conflictual interaction pattern that can subsequently affect all other social relationships. Self-disclosure can create feelings of insecurity and dependency and fear that others will not handle this information carefully.

The characteristics and influences of friend groups

Relationships in adolescence differ from relationships in childhood because they are based more on psychological qualities: kindness and sensitivity.

Characteristics of groups of friends

It has long been thought that groups of friends have a negative influence. But nowadays it turns out that this is not the case. The relationships within a group of friends are based on the principle of reciprocity and cooperation between equal individuals.

Brown et al (1997) claimed that every group of friends can be understood as a social system with clear boundaries in which processes occur that are often very subtle: negative comments , laughing or disapproving looks, but also admiring words and positive attention. Due to the use of boundaries, it is not possible for every young person to be part of a group of friends. Acceptance and rejection play an important role. Delinquent friend groups have stricter boundaries, stronger hierarchy and high levels of social pressure for conformity.

Influences of friend groups are determined by two factors:

  1. The influence depends on norms and values within the group.
  2. The influence depends on the extent to which the young person identifies with the group.

So: what the group conveys and the extent to which the participants are susceptible to it.

Contrary to popular belief, the norms and values of friend groups are often very similar to the norms and values of adult society and there is usually no countermovement.
Deviant friend groups have a negative influence. However, it is not clear what the cause of deviant behavior is, because selection and socialization, just like with dyadic friendships, play a role in groups of friends.

Selection can be through forced selection (through social exclusion) or through voluntary selection (personal preference). Young people who are socially excluded are forced to select other socially deviant peers to form relationships with.

Socialization can be very subtle. Young people who are subtly rewarded and encouraged by friends are more likely to continue the behavior. The extent to which the young person identifies with a delinquent group influences the willingness to exhibit behavior that deviates from societal norms and values. The young person does not necessarily have to be part of a group of friends, the desire alone also has an influence. This way they increase the chance of being included in the group of friends. It is the perceptions that young people have of the behavior of the potential friends in the friend group, and not the actual behavior of those friends that they focus on. The effects of the selection of friends are also greater than the effects of socialization by those friends.

It can be concluded that the group of friends itself has less influence than is often assumed and that the influence of the best friend is great and may be underestimated.

Two aspects are important for the existence of friendships between young people from different cultures:

  • Difference between school context and outside school context. Friendships that develop outside of school are characterized by clearer ethnic separation.
  • The social environment, especially education, work and income.

With a higher social background, socio-economic similarities seem to become more important, while cultural differences become less important for establishing friendships.


In addition to the family, the school group is the context in which young people spend the most time.
Experiences at school have great meaning. Social status plays a major role in this.

Social status at schoolTwo processes can be distinguished:

  1. Social acceptance
  2. Social rejection

The social position that young people occupy in a group does not depend exclusively on individual characteristics, but is partly determined by characteristics of the group.
An individual’s behavior may be appreciated by one group and not by another.

Positive social status is related to self-esteem, well-being and prosocial behavior. Negative social status is associated with loneliness, feelings of social isolation, drug use, aggression and delinquency.

Newcomb and Bukowski (1983) recognized five social status groups at school:1. Popular adolescents: more cognitive skills , less aggression and loneliness. Great social competence.
2. Rejected adolescents: accepted by few. More aggressive, more conflicts with fellow students. Socially withdrawn, more likely to suffer from depression and social anxiety. Two clear distinguishing factors are important:

  • Aggressive disruptive behavior
  • Socially withdrawn behavior.
  1. Ignored adolescent: not accepted, but not rejected either. Shy, less social skills, normally functioning young people who no one sees.
    4. Controversial adolescents: accepted by many but also rejected by many. Relatively high levels of aggression coupled with a high degree of sociability that is comparable to a popular adolescent.
    5. Average adolescent: do not score high or low on acceptance or rejection. Less noticeable than popular youth but more noticeable than ignored youth. Characteristics of popular and rejected adolescents.

    Social status is relatively stable over time. But this is less obvious than it seems . The same behavior in one age phase leads to a completely different social status in the next age phase. This could actually lead to discontinuity. At all ages, importance is attached to prosocial behavior such as cooperation, involvement with others, helpfulness and respect for social rules. As a result, children who exhibit this behavior will receive and often maintain a positive status.

    Social rejection at schoolIt is assumed that the group of rejected adolescents consists of two subgroups that clearly differ from each other in terms of behavioral patterns:

  • The aggressive-rejected adolescents (more boys than girls)
  • The submissive-rejected adolescents: the degree of positive social behavior is important here. Young people who show negative social behavior are rejected, but if they also show a lot of positive social behavior at the same time, this will not happen.

This distinction says something about the cause and effect of the rejection.

School BullyingBullying is an ongoing series of negative physical or verbal interactions by one or more people toward another person. There is a clear difference between bullying and social rejection. Bullying involves clear active actions that are physical, verbal or non-verbal. Involvement in bullying appears to be gender specific: while the victims are equally likely to be boys and girls, the perpetrators are often boys. Boys bully more often in physical ways. Bullied children are at greater risk of developing internalizing problems. Perpetrators are often also socially rejected.

Olweus (1991) claimed that bullying is not an isolated behavior but a part of an individual’s deviant behavior pattern that is recognizable well before adolescence.
Research shows that some of the perpetrators are very socially manipulative: bullying others makes them better/more popular.

Perpetrators who are bullied themselves, the perpetrator-victims, exhibit the most externalizing problem behavior. There is still uncertainty about causality: about what influences what. The bullying behavior of some perpetrators may be caused by the lack of certain social skills of some young people.
Olweus (2004) devised the Bullying Prevention Program: perpetrators, victims, classmates and the class and school as a whole. Also called a multilevel approach, it seems most suitable.

The relationship between the parent and the adolescent

The role of parents is often underestimated and the role of friends overestimated. Two perspectives:

  1. The first perspective: Different relationships provide different contexts for development. Friendships can meet the desire for intimacy and companionship. Relationships with parents can meet the need for care and attachment. During adolescence, shifts occur that cause young people to become independent of their parents.
  2. The second perspective: Is based on attachment theory and related theories. The parent-child relationship influences the relationships with friends that are formed later. Children’s early experiences and perceptions of their relationships, as well as the expectations they develop, are incorporated into an internal working model. Assumes continuity. However, in modern thinking about attachment there is room for unique situations and events in the course of development that can lead to an adjustment of the mentioned working model.

Finally, there are theoretical assumptions that lie between the two perspectives.

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