Peers play critical role in childhood 'middle years'

Content type
Media release

February 2024

Having positive and supportive friendships in the middle years of childhood reduces stress, enhances self-esteem and helps with negotiating relationships later in life, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS).

Based on a review of Australian and international research on children aged 8 to 14, the policy and practice paper shows positive peer relationships can have a profound impact on health and wellbeing, as well as learning and academic performance.  

Report co-author and Research Fellow at AIFS, Dr Mandy Truong said the number of friends a young person has is less important than the quality of those friendships.

'During the middle years of childhood young people experience rapid physical and mental development. They are faced with the disruption of moving from primary to secondary school, and navigating relationships both online and in the real world,' Dr Truong said.

'At a time when parental influence often diminishes, if a young person has one or two good friends they can talk to and draw on for support, that can make a huge difference.'

Dr Truong said parents could consider the importance of supporting healthy friendships when establishing family rules and routines, including limiting use of devices.

'After a day at school many young people want to continue the conversation with their friends – whether online or in-person – which might be when they lean on each other for support. Some young people only discover their ‘tribe’ online, making those interactions even more important,' Dr Truong said.

'Of course, parents need to also be aware who their child is engaging with, to ensure those interactions are healthy. Rules and routines around catching up with friends online or in person will be different for each family, but ideally it’s finding something that works for both parents and young people, and ultimately nurtures healthy friendships,' Dr Truong said.

Dr Truong said parents and practitioners supporting young people who find making connections a challenge are encouraged to offer strategies for conflict resolution, resilience, healthy communication and self-regulation.

'It may be that they need encouragement to make those connections, which is where social activities like team sports, music or theatre can come in,' Dr Truong said.

Dr Truong said while many parents and practitioners are aware of the importance of the early and teenage years, many don’t understand the formative nature of middle childhood.

'Although there is a growing body of evidence on how peer relationships impact mental health in the middle years of childhood, we need further research and awareness,' Dr Truong said.

'What happens in these friendships plays a key role in how relationships are negotiated in later adolescence, so it’s critical that we deepen our understanding of the factors at play.'

The influence of peer relationships in the middle years on mental health is based on a rapid review of the research evidence from the past 10 years on peer relationships and mental health among people aged 8 to 14 years. It focused on peer relationships in general, with a particular focus on positive and supportive friendships. It did not explore bullying and peer victimisation. 

Media contact     
Kate O'Connor      
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