What influences supportive peer relationships in the middle years?
The ‘middle years’, or early adolescence (8–14 years), of a child’s life are a period of key developments in sexual maturity, the brain, social and emotional cognition and self-awareness (Evans-Whipp et al., 2017). During the middle years, the influence of peer relationships on a young person’s social and emotional development also begins to intensify (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth [ARACY], 2011; Blum et al., 2022; Mitic et al., 2021;). Australian research indicates that although friendships are important to young people in this age group, they can also be a source of anxiety and stress (Redmond et al., 2016). Therefore, it is important to understand what factors influence peer relationships in the middle years to be able to better support young people’s mental health, development and wellbeing.
This short article summarises key findings from a systematic review by Mitic and colleagues (2021) that looked at the determinants of supportive peer relationships in early adolescence. The review summarised cross-sectional research (n = 364 included studies) measuring the factors associated with peer relationship quality among early adolescents (8–14 year olds). According to the review, supportive peer relationships refer to ‘relationships, of high perceived quality, which serve a protective function for an individual’ (Mitic et al., 2021, p 2).
In addition to summarising key findings from the systematic review by Mitic and colleagues (2021), this article provides some considerations for practice with young people in their middle years.
The aim of these CFCA short articles summarising systematic reviews is to translate recent research into an accessible format for our audience. Systematic reviews provide high quality overviews of research on selected topics. We have chosen this particular review because it provides the most recent summary of evidence on a topic highly relevant to our CFCA audience.
Factors influencing supportive peer relationships in the middle years
According to Mitic and colleagues (2021) there are several individual and environmental factors that influence peer relationships in the middle years. These include:
- social and emotional skills
- affect and wellbeing
- behaviour and health
- peer and school environment
- family and community
- the virtual environment.
These factors are described below.
Mitic and colleagues (2021) found that identity-related variables were strongly associated with supportive peer relationships in early adolescence. These variables were grouped into 3 main categories: temperamental dispositions (e.g. adaptability, extraversion), relational dispositions (e.g. shyness) and self-concepts (e.g. hope and optimism, self-esteem).
Across these 3 categories, the identity-related variables strongly and positively associated with peer relationships were:
The identity-related variables that were strongly and negatively associated with peer relationships were:
- rejection sensitivity.
Mitic and colleagues (2021) suggest that aspects of identity, supportive peer relationships and adolescent wellbeing influence and shape each other. That is, young adolescents’ identity and wellbeing influence supportive peer relationships but such relationships can also have a positive effect on young adolescents’ sense of self, identity and wellbeing.
Social and emotional skills
The systematic review also explored the relationship between social and emotional skills and supportive peer relationships in the middle years. The variables that were strongly and positively associated with peer relationships were:
- emotion regulation ability
- affective social cognition
- prosocial motivation and sympathy
- social competence
Co-rumination refers to dwelling on and talking extensively about problems, which may involve people coming together in mutual support when sharing a common goal. Interestingly, the review found a positive association between co-rumination and supportive peer relationships despite other research indicating that co-rumination can be counterproductive. For example, dwelling on negative emotions can be associated with internalising difficulties such as depression (Dirghangi, 2017; Rose et al., 2014).
Affect and wellbeing
Core affect relates to the state of an individual’s moods and emotions based on their tendency to react to external stimuli (Russell, 2003). The review found strong and positive associations between peer relationship quality and the following aspects of core affect and personal wellbeing:
- positive affect (e.g. the experience of positive moods)
- high levels of perceived quality of life and satisfaction.
Behaviour and health
Self-disclosure, which refers to sharing your personal thoughts and aspirations, was strongly associated with supportive peer relationships. By contrast, internalising disorders such as depression or social anxiety were associated with poor peer relationship quality. The direction of this association could be either way; poor internalising mental health can lead to poor peer relationships but the authors also noted that supportive peer relationships can protect against negative mental health outcomes.
Peer and school environment
Experiences of inclusion, belonging at school and positive attitudes towards school were associated with supportive peer relationships in the middle years. There was some evidence that peer victimisation and peer-related stress have a negative effect on peer relationship quality but, interestingly, the strength of evidence was not strong compared to the supportive factors. This suggests that a positive school environment and a sense of belonging have the potential to balance or mitigate negative peer experiences.
Family and community
The strength of evidence for the association between family factors and the quality of peer relationships in the middle years was lower than for the other factors investigated in the review. This suggests that family influence may weaken during early adolescence. However, the authors propose that positive experiences with caregivers earlier in childhood, such as with parental attachment and positive parenting, are important in shaping identity and social and emotional skills in the middle years, which may, in turn, affect peer relationship quality.
The review by Mitic and colleagues (2021) also found a strong association between relationships with significant others in the community (i.e. non-parental adults) and peer relationship quality. This included relationships through social networks or youth organisations; participation in these may increase a sense of personal value, hopefulness and agency among early adolescents.
The virtual environment
Despite the likely large role of the online/virtual environment in peer relationships in the middle years, Mitic and colleagues (2021) found insufficient research on this topic to posit a positive or negative relationship. Other research suggests that social media may have negative effects on mental health and wellbeing (Mundy et al., 2017) or create avenues for cyber-victimisation (Van Zalk & Van Zalk, 2019). However, virtual environments can also provide access to important forums for building social connections (Bourgeois et al., 2014).
Implications for practice
- It is important to recognise the significance of peer relationships in the middle years on social and emotional developments. Asking about peer relationships when working with early adolescents may provide insights into their mental health and possible behavioural challenges.
- Finding ways to help young people in the middle years increase their self-confidence and sense of identity may support healthy relationships in the middle years. In return, healthy peer relationships are likely to have positive effects on young people’s wellbeing and sense of self.
- Co-rumination may have benefits for improving supportive peer relationships – especially when they involve sharing common feelings and experiences. It is important to understand when co-rumination is healthy and when it may not be.
- Relationships with significant others in the community (i.e. non-parental adults) can support peer relationships. Finding ways to facilitate positive community connections for young people in the middle years may be a useful strategy.
- Family relationships are important in early childhood for the development of a young person’s identity and socio-emotional skills. These skills, in turn, are core to building supportive peer relationships in the middle years.
- Virtual and online environments and peer interactions in the middle years are important factors given young people’s use of online technologies. However, there is currently limited research evidence about the relationship between peer relationships and online environments.
This article summarises the findings of a systematic review that investigated the factors affecting supportive peer relationships in the middle years. Individual characteristics such as identity and socio-emotional skills, as well as environmental factors such as a child’s peer group and school, family and community environment are important influences on positive peer relationships. Being aware of how these factors are associated with peer relationships can provide insight for potential interventions, both to support positive peer relationships and to support better wellbeing for young people.
About the review this article is based on
This article is based on the following review:
Toward an Integrated Model of Supportive Peer Relationships in Early Adolescence: A Systematic Review and Exploratory Meta-Analysis,(2021), Mitic, M., Woodcock, K. A., Amering, M., Krammer, I., Stiehl, K. A. M., Zehetmayer, S., & Schrank, B.
The review summarised cross-sectional research that measured what factors influence peer relationship quality among early adolescents (8–14 year olds). A total of 364 studies were included in the review, with the majority based on populations from North America, and 21 from Australia and New Zealand. In the analysis, the authors found 93 variables that they categorised into groups of factors that influence supportive peer relationships. The review focused on literature relating to majority populations; therefore, the findings may have limited applicability to disadvantaged or minority groups. Further, studies were included in the review regardless of methodological quality.
Further reading and related resources
- Prosocial behaviours and the positive impact on mental health, (2023), (Growing Up in Australia Snapshot Series – Issue 9), Rowland, B., & Evans-Whipp, T., Melbourne, Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Adolescents’ relationships with their peers, (2018), (LSAC Annual Statistical Report 2017), Gray, S., Romaniuk, H., & Daraganova, G., Melbourne, Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Student Wellbeing, Engagement and Learning across the Middle Years, (2018), Evans-Whipp, T., Mundy, L., Canterford, L., & Patton, G., Canberra, Department of Education and Training.
- Are the kids alright? Young Australians in their middle years: Final report, (2016), Redmond, G., Skattebol, J., Saunders, P., Lietz, P., Zizzo, G., O’Grady, E. et al., Flinders University & University of New South Wales Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).
Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY). (2011). ‘betwixt and between’: A report on ARACY's Middle Years Project. Canberra: ARACY.
Blum, R. W., Lai, J., Martinez, M., & Jessee, C. (2022). Adolescent connectedness: Cornerstone for health and wellbeing. BMJ, 379, e069213. doi.org/10.1136/bmj-2021-069213
Bourgeois, A., Bower, J., & Carroll, A. (2014). Social networking and the social and emotional wellbeing of adolescents in Australia. Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 24(2), 167–182. doi.org/10.1017/jgc.2014.14
Dirghangi, S. (2017). On the importance of being fun: Over time associations between perceptions of fun and changes in peer preference and popularity. Doctoral dissertation, Florida Atlantic University.
Evans-Whipp, T., Mundy, L., Canterford, L., & Patton, G. (2017). Student wellbeing, engagement and learning across the middle years. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Education and Training.
Mitic, M., Woodcock, K. A., Amering, M., Krammer, I., Stiehl, K. A. M., Zehetmayer, S. et al. (2021). Toward an integrated model of supportive peer relationships in early adolescence: A systematic review and exploratory meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.589403
Mundy, L. K., Canterford, L., Olds, T., Allen, N. B., & Patton, G. C. (2017). The association between electronic media and emotional and behavioral problems in late childhood. Academic Pediatrics, 17(6), 620–624. doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acap.2016.12.014
Redmond, G., Skattebol, J., Saunders, P., Lietz, P., Zizzo, G., O'Grady, E. et al. (2016). Are the kids alright? Young Australians in their middle years: Final report. Flinders University & University of New South Wales Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).
Rose, A. J., Schwartz-Mette, R. A., Glick, G. C., Smith, R. L., & Luebbe, A. M. (2014). An observational study of co-rumination in adolescent friendships. Developmental Psychology, 50(9), 2199–2209. doi.org/10.1037/a0037465
Russell, J. (2003). Core affect and the psychological construction of emotion. Psychological Review, 110, 145–172. doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.110.1.145
Super, S., Wagemakers, M. A. E., Picavet, H. S. J., Verkooijen, K. T., & Koelen, M. A. (2016). Strengthening sense of coherence: Opportunities for theory building in health promotion. Health Promotion International, 31(4), 869–878. doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dav071
Van Zalk, N., & Van Zalk, M. (2019). Longitudinal links between adolescent social anxiety and depressive symptoms: Testing the mediational effects of cybervictimization. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 50(2), 186–197. doi.org/10.1007/s10578-018-0829-1
1 Sense of coherence (SOC) refers to factors related to an individual’s ability to be more resilient to stressors in daily life and maintain wellbeing and health (Super et al., 2016).
2 Refers to the affective component of social cognition; the feelings and emotions associated with how people perceive, process and respond to social communication and interactions.