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Factors for Protecting Children From Peer Isolation

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Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Young People

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Describe and discuss the phenomenon of peer isolation for children/adolescents; what factors could protect their well-being?  

The term ‘peer group’ can be described as a social group, comprised of individuals of similar ages, social positions, and backgrounds, who often have shared interests, beliefs and values; within these social groups hierarchical structures commonly exist and members are often expected to follow certain guidelines eg. how to think, act, behave and dress (Rubin, Bukowski, Parker & Bowker, 2008). Developmentalists created five sociometric categories to help identify the various levels of peer acceptance in childhood: the classified groups include popular children, rejected children, neglected children, controversial children, and average-status children (Newcomb, Bukowski & Pattee, 1993). There are many factors that can contribute towards a child or adolescent being accepted, rejected or neglected by their peers, however, the main causes are thought to be linked to facial attractiveness, appearance/physique, temperamental characteristics, cognitive and social skills, and parenting styles (Coie, Dodge, & Coppotelli, 1982; Shaffer, 2009).

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Throughout childhood and adolescence, peer groups play a highly significant role in helping to build and shape an individual’s beliefs, behaviors and an overall sense of identity (Woodward & Fergusson, 2000; Rubin, Bukowski, Parker & Bowker, 2008). Earlier studies have shown that individuals who lack a strong peer group in middle childhood to early adolescence are at greater risk of dropping out of school, engaging in criminal activity, and displaying serious mental health conditions in adulthood (Parker & Asher, 1987, Parker, Rubin, Price & DeRosier, 1995; Rubin, Bukowski, Parker & Bowker, 2008). It is important for protective factors to be put into action for peer isolated individuals, to avoid poor mental health and maladjusted behaviour from occurring (Levendosky, Okun & Parker, 1995; Shaffer, 2009). Protective factors (primarily related to individual, family, school and community-based circumstances) aim to help reduce the likelihood of poor mental health arising in children and adolescents, and to help maintain a sense of wellbeing, particularly in those considered to be ‘at risk’ (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2009).

As argued by Vygotsky (1934), a child’s social and cognitive development can be significantly impacted by the environment in which they grow up in (Martin, Carlson & Buskist, 2009). Research suggests that children who are raised in remote areas with a lack of nearby communal spaces or playgrounds, have significantly more delayed cognitive development, than that of children raised in more sociable areas with nearby parks, playgrounds and activity centers available to them (Martin, Carlson & Buskist, 2009). Furthermore, in a study conducted by Howes & colleagues (1998) on primary and secondary school children, the findings revealed that the most sociable and outgoing children were the ones who had attended kindergarten and were being raised in stimulating environment (Peisner-Feinberg, Clifford, Yazejian, Culkin, Howes, & Kagan, 1998; Shaffer, 2009). This research suggests that the effects of growing up in a non-stimulating environment may in some cases be detrimental to a child’s cognitive and social development. Though it may not be possible to prevent peer isolation from occurring, simply by creating a more stimulating environment, it is thought to help reduce further risk of social isolation and to enhance the child’s social abilities (Cohn, Patterson & Christopoulos, 1991).

Research suggests that between the ages of 2-12 years, children begin to show a greater interest in their peers and slowly reduce the amount of time spent with parents or care-givers (Rubin, Bukowski, Parker & Bowker, 2008). It has been controversially argued by Judith Harris (1995) that peers have a far greater impact on the development of a child’s social skills, than parents do (Harris, 1995; Shaffer, 2009). Nevertheless, attachment theorists such as Ainsworth (1979) and Bowlby (1988) argue that primary attachment influences the ways in which a child will respond to and communicate with their peers (Ainsworth, 1979; Bowlby, 1988). It has previously been suggested that children with disconnected, unsupportive or highly authoritarian parents, are more likely to be at risk of being bullied and rejected by their peer group (Eisenberg, Shepard, Fabes, Murphy & Guthrie, 1998; Hart, Newell, & Olsen, 2003; Shaffer, 2009). A study conducted by Kelly Bost and associates (1998), found that children with secure attachments often have a healthier relationship with their peers, and a more effective use of social skills, than those children with insecure attatchments (Bost, Vaughn, Washington, Cielinski, & Bradbard, 1998; Shaffer, 2009).

Previous research has found that children who are disliked by their peers often loose interest in academic and extra-curricular activities, and are more prone to feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression (Buhs & Ladd, 2001; Flook, Repetti, & Ullman, 2005; Ladd, 2006). Earlier studies reflect these findings, suggesting that ‘popular’ children and adolescents tend to score higher in IQ tests and attain more academic achievements than ‘rejected’ children and adolescents (Bukowski, Hoza & Boivin, 1993, Chen, Rubin, & Li, 1997; Wentzel & Asher, 1995). Furthermore, it is critical for parents, teachers and guardians to work towards increasing the level of social interaction and support available to those children affected by peer isolation; this may help to reduce feelings of loneliness, help to improve grades, and to prevent any psychological or physiological damage from occurring at a later stage (Martin, Carlson & Buskist, 2009).

In a study conducted by Staffieri (1967), a group of children aged six to ten were asked to react to a series of silhouettes, displaying varying physiques; the results of the study found that a direct correlation existed between appearance and popularity levels (Staffieri, 1967; Shaffer, 2009). The results revealed how children responded to the mesomorphic figures by using more positive adjectives, and responded to the ectomorphic and endomorphic figures, using more negative adjectives (Shaffer, 2009; Sigelman, Miller, & Whitworth, 1986). The children’s reactions to the silhouettes mirrored their own observations of their peer groups, as the least popular individuals among their peers were found to be endomorphic, whilst the most popular children were mesomorphic (Shaffer, 2009; Sigelman, Miller, & Whitworth, 1986). Previous studies support this finding, suggesting that by primary school, the ‘attractive’ children are deemed as ‘popular’ by their peers, and the ‘unattractive’ children are often more likely to be rejected and become isolated; it is thought that this attractiveness bias only grows stronger and is reinforced in adolescence (Langlois, Kalakanis, Rubenstein, Larson, Hallam & Smoot, 2000; Xie, Li, Boucher, Hutchins & Cairns, 2006). Therefore, it is imperative that parents and teachers promote tolerance and acceptance from an early age and encourage children to be more open and accepting of all body types, to reduce the risk of children (and adolescents) being teased by their peers about their physique and appearance.

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Throughout adolescence, puberty can have a significant impact for both boys and girls, on whether they are accepted or rejected within their peer groups (Bukowski, Sippola & Newcomb, 2000). Several studies have found that girls who mature early are somewhat less outgoing and popular with other female peers; this is primarily due to their difference in body shape in comparison to those girls who have not yet gone through puberty (Aro & Taipale, 1987; Stice, Presnell, & Bearman, 2001). The hormonal and physical changes occurring tend to promote a sense of dominance, particularly in males; this often manifests itself through an increase of outward aggression which becomes a less favoured characteristic among peers in adolescence (Haselager, Cillessen, Van Lieshout, Riksen-Walraven & Hartup, 2002). This newfound aggression can cause adolescent males to be disliked or even rejected by their peer group, putting them at potential risk of peer isolation (Bukowski, Sippola & Newcomb, 2000).

Psychologists have previously suggested that bullying becomes more prevalent during early adolescence, due to factors such as puberty, risk taking and an increase of peer pressure (Bukowski, Sippola & Newcomb, 2000). Previous research suggests that relationships among peers becomes increasingly complex, as a shift takes place from childhood to early-adolescence (Hartup & Stevens, 1997). During puberty, a sexual interest in the opposite sex starts to emerge; the early maturing boys may start to grow closer to girls that are going through puberty (Pellegrini & Long, 2002), and it is also common for pubescent girls to move away from same sex peer groups and to start socialising with the pubescent males within their peer group (Ge, Conger, & Elder, 1996; Stice, Presnell, & Bearman, 2001). As newly formed relationships and peer groups emerge, individuals often seek new experiences, which can lead to reckless behaviour and the introduction of peer pressure (Martin, Carlson & Buckist, 2009; Arnett, 1995; Magnusson, Stattin & Allen, 1986).Research suggests that boys are more likely to partake in physical bullying, whilst girls are more likely to engage in psychological bullying, such as name-calling and excluding others from their group (Martin, Carlson & Buckist, 2009). Studies have shown that the rate of depression and anxiety increases from 1% in children under 12 years of age to over 20% by the end of adolescence (Kessler, Avenevoli & Merikangas, 2001). Between the ages of 15 to 18, depression has been found to significantly increase (Hankin, Abramson, Moffitt, Silva, McGee & Angell, 1998), with it being twice as likely to occur in girls than boys during this time (Glowinski, Madden, Bucholz, Lynskey & Heath, 2003). At this stage, it is important that educational establishments are able to promote and encourage healthy social relationships, whilst putting a clear set of boundaries in place, reinforcing the significance of academic success, and upholding a zero tolerance to bullying (Olweus, 1993; Rigby, 1997).

Overall, it is evident that the phenomenon of peer isolation can have a serious negative impact on an individual’s mental and physical development, particularly throughout middle childhood to adolescence. Therefore, it is extremely important for protective factors, such as the ones discussed, to be put in place for those individuals who are isolated from their peers, to ensure that their wellbeing is maintained and to prevent any damaging psychological and physical health conditions from occurring in later life.

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