In today’s society, social influence can impact a person’s behavior immensely. As adults, we are less impressionable and more capable of paving our own paths, but is this the case for children? Research shows that due to the fact that their minds are still developing, children can tend to conform and allow outside peer influences to affect how they think and act. In the pages that follow I will compare current research explaining the effects of peer influences, positive and negative, on children and their behavior. I will explain why this research is crucial, and why it should be on going. I believe this is important not only for hopes of providing better and more effective forms of early intervention for troubling behaviors, but also for reinforcement and higher rates of positive ones. This subject personally interests me as a parent, and I hope to be able to apply the continuous findings to my own life in order to be a better parent.
Let’s first take a look at the positive influential effects that family and peers can have on children. “Children that are tightly connected to their mothers as babies have a tendency to develop stronger self-respect and better self-confidence, to be independent, better in school, have successful social relationships and experience less depression and anxiety” (Blazevic, 2016). The second a child is born they begin to rely on their mothers and/or caregivers. “When guardians react fast and prompt, children learn to rely on people who are responsible for their care, and in contrary, the children that do not gain a trust early in their life can have a negative influence in a later childhood and during the life when different types of behaviour disorder appear” (Blazevic, 2016).
From a young age children are observers. They mimic their parents, siblings, even characters that they see on the television. They learn to talk by listening to others speak, learn to eat, walk and so on. In a sense, they begin to conform.
“Conformity, in other words, refers to pressures to behave in ways consistent with rules indicating how we should, or ought to, behave” (Baron & Branscombe, 2017, p. 409). They see and learn right from wrong, and how they are expected to act or behave. Early childhood starting at the age where a child would be entering preschool, around three years old to early grade school years, is when peers begin to have an impact. Have you ever observed children at that age? You can see when they play together how they react off of each other. Say you have a group of children playing together and one tries to take a toy from another. An adult intervenes and explains to them the importance of sharing. This is what is expected of them by not only the adult currently in the situation, but by their parents, and by the outside world. This is an influence from the adult, but also how we are taught to conform.
Physical activity is also an example of how peers influence children. “Recently, several studies have provided evidence that positive social interactions may in turn promote physical activity behavior in school-aged children (≥ 8 years old) and young adolescents (12–14 years old)” (Barkley, et al., 2014). This is of huge importance as it can lead to positive outcomes throughout the child’s life and into adulthood. Being physically active can help a child maintain a healthy weight which can help promote body image. Most importantly for young children though, it helps maintain a healthy energy level and can be a healthy outlet.
Most children will play by themselves, ride bikes, or run around, but they are likely to be active for longer periods of time and more frequently when they have company of those within the same age group. “When in the presence of their friends, children increased physical activity intensity according to accelerometer counts…” (Barkley, et al., 2014). Research has shown that children prefer to play with other children. A lonely child might ask an adult to play, or want to leave the activity sooner. Starting off this pattern at an early age can also promote the interest in team sports and activities as children get older. This can lead to increased cooperation skills, the ability to know how to work as a team, leadership skills, commitment and reliability. These are all skills that will follow them into adulthood opening many opportunities.
As children grow older and come into adolescence, they begin to improve their social skills. “In the period of middle childhood, the influence of family, teachers and peers is of an extreme importance” (Blazevic, 2016). It is at this age where positive influences are crucial, ensuring that children choose the right path into adulthood. As parents we begin to pay close attention to the company they keep and they activities they become involved in. We set limits such as curfews and responsibilities such as chores. We nudge our children into choosing a positive friend group, and lean on teachers and other support systems to reinforce these positive expected behaviors while we aren’t around. “The main features of the social development in the middle childhood are: forming of the first friendships, growth of self-respect, differentiation of capabilities, effort and happiness during the success and failure, regulating emotions, understanding of connection between moral regulations and social conventions, appearance of peer groups, mutual trust” (Blazevic, 2016).
They begin to learn who they are. They begin to become independent, learning how to cope with negative experiences and how to promote positive ones themselves. They go through puberty and have emotions and feelings that they have never felt before. Many friend groups developed in elementary school will seperate, branching off to meet new people, and develop new groups. Blazevic, 2016, says that teachers should be creating opportunity for teamwork in order for the children to develop positive and friendly relationships with their peers, but also to allow them to learn different social skills. By giving children group work assignments and assigning groups with like minded children, the teacher can open the door to new friendships.
Now let us take a look at how negative influences from peers can affect a child’s behavior. “Non-acceptance by peers can have negative consequences, and mostly the children who are exposed to that are rejected, aggressive and withdrawn” (Blazevic, 2016). Tisak, Tisak, & Laurene, 2012, have found that unfriendly interactions, such as aggressive interactions can lead children to experiencing feelings of rejection, hostility and hurtfulness.
This, in turn, can cause a child to feel depressed, have negative experiences in school, and negative or lacking peer relationships. It is an important turning factor for a child to have a positive experience with school because this is where they have the opportunity to build healthy relationships, but when a negative experience occurs it can set a path and the child can become rebellious. Blazevic, 2016, tells us that this lack of self-respect and trust within themselves can lead them to believe that others know better, causing them to easily buckle under peer pressure and fall into the wrong crowd. Morrongiello, Seasons, Mcauley, & Koutsoulianos confirm this, telling us that past research has shown that the closer a child is with a peer, the more influence that peer has on the child’s risk taking behavior. These negative influences can cause children to use poor judgement, doing things such as cutting class or using illegal substances. Early intervention is key. As parents, it is important that we watch for warning signs and are able to intervene when needed to help keep them on the right path.
In conclusion, research has continuously proven that peers can have both positive and negative effects on children. Familial influence begins when the child is born, and can help shape the impact that peers will have later in the child’s life. Encouraging things such as physical activity and positive relationships with teachers can help pave a positive path, in addition to modeling expected behavior. Building a positive relationship with your child can impact the choices they make and friend groups they choose as we lead them into adulthood. It is important that as parents we build their self-worth and their self-respect in order for them to embrace themselves and lead a positive life.