The company we keep
Seminal psychology research at the University of Maine in the past two decades has contributed to our understanding of the role and value of children’s peer relationships and, just as important, the difference even one friend can make.
Friendship is defined as having reciprocated positive feelings for one another. I like you and you like me.
A key aspect of friendship is the intimacy and support that friends, hopefully, have for one another.
There’s some very unique kind of relationships throughout your life that isn’t based on any kind of power differential, like so much of your early upbringing, your authority figures — parents and teachers who are very important, that they don’t have that equality aspect.
There’s a huge difference between having no friends and one friend. One friend can be instrumental in supporting adjustment. Traditionally, often the focus was, “Let’s hope the child will be liked by many people around us.”
That’s all well and good, but it could be very challenging to do.
The focus on that more recently has been on how your social attractions and relationships, like friendships, romantic relationships affect depression and social anxiety, what we call internalizing symptoms.
It is the case that nearly all psychological disorders have some, either causes or contributions or consequences that show up in interpersonal relationships.
I study adolescents because that’s the time that these close friendships become centrally important to kids. Our parents’ influence wanes a bit. Friends become so important in our lives.
A better understanding of how their friends contribute to their emotional adjustment is really important.
My students and I have worked with Head Start centers all over Maine in developing and evaluating curriculum that through teaching positive social skills, as a way of reducing physical aggression in the classroom.
We work with Head Start teachers and parents in evaluating and developing those interventions.
From a clinical psychologist’s perspective, a therapist and also as a parent, it can be hard to see just the depth of the struggle that some kids are going through, but that ultimately reinforces our resolve as a research team to dig in there and understand it, even it’s hard to see.