4 minute read

Peer Acceptance

The degree to which a child or adolescent is socially accepted by peers; the level of peer popularity.

Peer acceptance is measured by the quality rather than the quantity of a child or adolescent's relationships. While the number of friends varies among children and over time as a child develops, peer acceptance is often established as early as preschool. Factors such as physical attractiveness, cultural traits, and disabilities affect the level of peer acceptance, with a child's degree of social competence being the best predictor of peer acceptance. Children who are peer-accepted or popular have fewer problems in middle and high school, and teens who are peer-accepted have fewer emotional and social adjustment problems as adults. Peer-accepted children may be shy or assertive, but they often have well-developed communication skills. Peer-accepted children tend to:

  • Correctly interpret other children's body language and tone of voice. Well-liked children can distinguish subtleties in emotions. For example, they can distinguish between anger directed toward them versus toward a parent.
  • Directly respond to the statements and gestures of other children. Well-liked children will say other children's names, establish eye contact, and use touch to get attention.
  • Give reasons for their own statements and gestures (actions). For example, well-liked children will explain why they want to do something the other child does not want to do.
  • Cooperate with, show tact towards, and compromise with other children, demonstrating the willingness to subordinate the self by modifying behavior and opinions in the interests of others. For example, when joining a new group where a conversation is already in progress, well-liked children will listen first, establishing a tentative presence in the group before speaking (even if it is to change the subject).

These skills are crucial in initiating and maintaining relationships, and in resolving conflicts. By contrast, rejected children tend either towards aggressive, antisocial behavior, or withdrawn, depressive behavior. They also don't listen well, tend not to offer reasons for their behavior, don't positively reinforce their peers, and have trouble cooperating. Antisocial children will interrupt people, dominate other children, and either verbally or physically attack them. Depressive or withdrawn children may be excessively reserved, submissive, anxious, and inhibited. Competitiveness or dominance by itself is not necessarily indicative of low peer acceptance. In fact, popular children tend to have the characteristics of both competitiveness and friendliness.

Although biological predisposition may be a factor in a child's social competence and level of peer acceptance, environmental factors are also extremely important. Some of the factors contributing to peer acceptance include (1) during infancy, the quality of attachment between mother or primary caregiver and child; (2) during childhood, the quantity and quality of opportunities for interaction with different types of peers in different environments (in the family, at school, church, camp, activity centers, in sports, or in the neighborhood); (3) the type of parenting style. A highly nurturant but moderately controlling "authoritative" parenting style is associated with the highest levels of social competence. By contrast, a low nurturant, highly controlling "authoritarian" parenting style is associated with children's aggressiveness, while the high nurturant but low-controlling "permissive" style is associated with failure to take responsibility for behavior.

Children learn to relate to peers by engaging in peer relationships. Often a vicious circle develops where a rejected child is given fewer and fewer opportunities by his peers to relate and thereby learn new skills. Lack of opportunity to participate normally in peer interaction is especially problematic for children who differ in some obvious way, either culturally, racially, or through some mental or physical disability. Issues of peer acceptance should be addressed as early as possible in order to prevent loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.

In addition to providing direct social skills training or counseling for the child with peer acceptance problems, parents and teachers can create opportunities for non-threatening social interaction to occur. Though children should never be forced to play together (this can create the rejection it is intended to remedy), popular and less-popular preschoolers can be encouraged to interact with one another. For example, a less sociable child may be encouraged to answer and ask questions of others. Older children should be provided opportunities to interact in smaller groups and in one-on-one situations, where it may be easier to try out new behaviors and make up for social mistakes. Shy or withdrawn children can be encouraged to develop outside interests that will place them in structured contact with others. In school, peer helping programs and collaborative learning provide opportunities for popular and less-popular children to work together. Ideally, collaboration should highlight the less-popular students' strengths, such as special interests and talents, rather than weaknesses. At any age, the smallest positive change in behavior should be reinforced with attention and praise.

Further Reading

Asher, S. R., and J. D. Coie, eds. Peer Rejection in Childhood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

Ramsey, P.G. Making Friends in School: Promoting Peer Relationships in Early Childhood. New York: Teacher's College Press, 1991.

Selman, R. The Growth of Interpersonal Understanding. New York: Academic Press, 1980.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development