Children’s happiness and self-esteem has a lot to do with their friends, Concordia research shows
The emotional life of an early adolescent can be chaotic, with spikes of highs and lows coming within hours of each other. Some children, however, experience higher degrees of emotional volatility than others.
Why? It likely has a lot to do with their friendships, according to a recent study co-authored by William Bukowski, a professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Science and Research Chair in Early Adolescent Development at Concordia.
“There have been many studies that have shown that if you want to predict an individual’s well-being into adulthood, you should find out about their functioning with peers in childhood,” he says.
“There is a lot of evidence suggesting that children who are well-liked by their peers or have strong friendship relations are protected from multiple forms of risk.”
The study, published in Psychologica Belgica, focuses on a group of early adolescents’ quotidian experiences and how levels of anxiety changed over the course of an average day.
Bukowski and his co-author, Sabine Nelis, a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia from KU Leuven in Belgium, assessed 94 children in grades five and six (median age: 10.8 years). They questioned them five times a day over the course of four consecutive days. The English-language host school was in the Montreal area and serviced students across the socioeconomic spectrum.
“We asked them questions about their emotions, both positive and negative. We wanted to find out what accounts for those fluctuations in anxiety,” Bukowski explains.
The researchers also drew on data from questionnaires the students filled out reporting their feelings, popularity and self-esteem as well as how they ranked their peers along several criteria.
Friendship leads to stability
Going over the data, the authors found that children who were well-liked and had solid friendship relations reported having higher levels of positive affect — basically, happier feelings — and lower levels of negative affect than children who were not. More importantly, the friended children also experienced fewer fluctuations in their emotional experiences. In particular, across the 20 assessments, they reported much less negative affect and a lower frequency of shifts between positive and negative extremes.
“This really shows that friendships in childhood give people ballast,” Bukowski says. “They even things out and promote stability.”
He notes that constant instability in children can have long-term consequences. Besides leading to an overall lack of contentment, Bukowski says it can have physiological effects, such as the wearing down of the body’s stress response system. That, he says, is why the researchers were operating with the assumption that emotional stability is overall positive.
It’s okay to be alone
Bukowski does note that children who are less popular with their peers are not always at risk.
“One thing that every parent should know is that every child is friendless once in a while. That’s just the way the system works,” he says. “At the same time, every child is friended once in a while. It is really important for children to think about the kind of friend they want and how much balance there is in their relationships overall.”
He adds that parents can help by asking their children at the beginning of the school year what kind of friends they want to have. Do they want to be friends with kids who have status or with those who have similar interests, abilities and values?
Bukowski says he hopes to expand his research by using the same approach for children considered at risk, specifically those with low socioeconomic status and refugees.