In his book, "Children's Peer Relations and Social Competence: A Century of Progress," Gary Ladd, Arizona State University professor of psychology and human development, examines the role of peer relationships in child and adolescent development by tracking major research findings from the 1900s to the present.
Among the many topics considered are peer acceptance and rejection, friendship development, school adjustment, bullying, self-esteem, loneliness, and the roles that sex differences, emotions, and culture play in peer relations.
"Children begin their lives in the social world of their families, however, as they mature they are introduced to the social world of peers and spend increasing amounts of time with kids their own age," Ladd says. "The types of relationships they form differ from those they have with parents and siblings and teach them unique skills that impact their development. Peer relationships are more balanced and the partners tend to bring similar levels of ability, reasoning and skill to their interactions."
As early as preschool, children face such challenges as making a new friend, maintaining existing friendships, fitting into peer groups and avoiding bullies, and all of these interpersonal skills require both complex thinking and behavioral skills, he says.
Some of the skills children learn through their peer relationships include assertiveness, conflict management, how to earn respect and control aggression. Research also indicates that play with peers provides children with important opportunities to discuss feelings, expand thought processes and knowledge, and experiment with language and social roles.
Some of children's behavior with their peers is influenced by what they learn from their parents and siblings. If parents engage in coercive behavior, Ladd says, children are also more likely to do so. If parents teach their children empathy, they are more likely to take their friends' feelings into consideration.
Some of children's "social competence," however, is innate. Some kids are motivated to have a few good friends, some like being a part of large groups. Some are naturally aggressive and some are passive.
Despite what parents may think, making friends is not always easy. It is difficult for kids to enter ongoing playgroups and research reveals that even toddlers are rejected by their peers 50 to 70 percent of the time. Some children know how to successfully enter the group, and others do not.
Ladd's book reveals that many children have problems relating to peers, and not all influences peers have on each other are positive.
"Children who are very shy or anxious or overly aggressive often get caught up in bully-victim relationships that have negative impact on both children," Ladd says. "It is also common for children with social difficulties to be excluded from everyday peer activities and experience feelings of discomfort, sadness and alienation. Adverse peer experiences can be stressful for children and, if persistent, can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness."
By surveying a century of research, Ladd's book reveals that there are substantial differences in how children approach interpersonal tasks such as making a friend and establishing a social reputation among peers. While he does not "lay out a formula" for parents to help their children improve their social skills and peer relationships, he does note that studies suggest some interventions, such as teaching children prosocial peer interaction skills and those intended to reduce such behaviors as aggression can improve peer acceptance.
"To effectively change children's peer relationships – especially undesirable relationships or reputations that have been entrenched for many years – it may not be sufficient to increase children's social competence without also altering their peer and family environments," Ladd adds. "Children must be taught forgiveness and empathy, and must learn to be accepting of individual differences."
For more than 20 years, Ladd has conducted research on peers and peer relations. He directs the Pathways Project, a long-term investigation of children's social, psychological and scholastic development that has generated substantial research findings about children's peer relations and social competence. His work is supported by the National Institutes of Health.