Psychology Children's Friendships
Kirby Deater-Deckard, Shereen El Mallah, Mengjiao Li
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0187


The widespread use of the term “friend” across disciplines and the enduring role it plays across the life span provides some indication of its generality and utility in understanding human development. However, fundamental, theoretical, and methodological issues continue to pose challenges to our understanding of the nature and significance of friendship. At the crux of measurement issues often faced by researchers are differences in the operationalization of friendship and its closely tied constructs (e.g., peer relations, popularity, acceptance, liking). Additional methodological hurdles often arise when attempting to identify who within a social network embodies the role of a friend and how best to measure the quality of these relationships. Researchers engage in various modes of assessment, ranging from the more straightforward and commonly used methods (i.e., peer nominations, peer ratings, social centrality) to the less often seen observational coding and integration of temporal parameters. In doing so, friendship has largely been viewed from a positive lens in which findings advocate its role in promoting various aspects of child development (e.g., social, moral, academic). It is important to note that in spite of the breadth of topics examined throughout the children’s friendship literature, attempts to examine the construct through a cross-race or cross-cultural lens has been limited, and few efforts have been made to understand friendship’s ties to other intimate relationships. Furthermore, although the construct of friendship is easily understood intuitively, its multifaceted nature and inherently dyadic form poses several challenges as researchers attempt to develop interventions geared toward developing the skills necessary for fostering such relationships.

General Overviews

Although interest in friendship relations can be traced back to the theoretical speculations of classical philosophers, the scientific investigation of the construct only emerged during the last century, and even then it drew in minimal and often sporadic research interest between the 1920s and the 1970s. Within the last few decades, however, the study of children’s friendship has established firmer roots empirically, and previously ignored theoretical postulations have begun receiving due attention. For example, in his seminal work on relationships throughout the lifespan, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (Sullivan 1953), Harry Stack Sullivan recognized friendship as the context in which mutual respect, cooperation, and interpersonal sensitivity may develop. Accentuating the sometimes overlooked differences between “peer relations” and “friendship,” Sullivan referred to the latter as “chumships,” and described the need for friends as the means to clarify and confirm perceptions. Narrowing in on what the authors refer to as Sullivan’s “sweeping definitions of friendship,” Newcomb and Bagwell 1995 integrates almost one hundred years of empirical work in order to provide a comprehensive, quantitative investigation of the friendship literature while employing broad- and narrowband categories to organize findings. Also drawing from Sullivan’s work, Berndt 2004 further expands on friendship’s definitional properties while stressing the importance of examining the nature of friendships and specifying the characteristics that ultimately determine its impact. Looking beyond what friendship is, Ladd 2005 shifts focus away from studies examining existing peer relationships in an effort to concentrate on the antecedents of friendship development, the active role children play in forming these relationships, and the distinct factors associated with gaining acceptance into peer groups. Also exploring the difference between friendship and peer acceptance, Erdley, et al. 2001 teases apart the unique influence of established friendships and peer acceptance on aspects of well-being and adjustment. Similarly, Bagwell and Schmidt 2011 acknowledges the positive impact of friendship on social, emotional, and cognitive development, while also shedding light on how the experience of friendship varies among individuals, revealing the determinants and correlates of friendship quality and identifying factors that should be taken into consideration when moving toward successful implementation of friendship interventions. Finally, Schneider 2016 presents a comprehensive account of the research and practice to date in children’s peer relations; however, in applying a contemporary lens, the author is also able to tap into less chartered territory such as the role of electronic communication in peer relationships and intercultural friendship in multicultural societies.

  • Bagwell, C. L., and M. E. Schmidt. 2011. Friendships in childhood and adolescence. New York: Guilford.

    This volume traces the significance of friendship for social, emotional, and cognitive development, while tying in the influences of sociology, attachment theory, ecological systems theory, and learning theory. A diverse range of topics are addressed, including friendship quality and function, assessment challenges, and implications for the development and implementation of friendship interventions.

  • Berndt, T. J. 2004. Children’s friendships: Shifts over a half-century in perspectives on their development and their effects. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 50.3: 206–223.

    DOI: 10.1353/mpq.2004.0014

    Strongly influenced by Sullivan’s work, this article focuses on the closest of peer relationships, “best friendships,” and presents conclusions derived from previous research regarding its implications for social and emotional development. The author questions how to define this bond, examines what changes occur over time, and notes the importance of examining the interaction between friendship quality and friends’ characteristics.

  • Erdley, C. A., D. W. Nangle, J. E. Newman, and E. M. Carpenter. 2001. Children’s friendship experiences and psychological adjustment: Theory and research. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 2001.91: 5–24.

    DOI: 10.1002/cd.3

    To distinguish children’s friendship from peer acceptance, this chapter cites empirical work demonstrating the unique contributions of each to a range of adjustment variables and notes the importance of this distinction with regard to intervention work. Additionally, authors argue for examining friendship components (quantity, quality) when studying the nature and impact of experiences.

  • Ladd, G. W. 2005. Making friends and becoming accepted in peer groups. In Children’s peer relations and social competence: A century of progress. Edited by G. W. Ladd, 89–112. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Tackling a unique line of inquiry, this chapter aims to uncover the processes underlying friendship formation, including identification of specific predictors of peer group entry and recognition of the active role children play in the subsequent levels of relationship success.

  • Newcomb, A. F., and C. L. Bagwell. 1995. Children’s friendship relations: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin 117.2: 306.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.2.306

    Beginning with a detailed account of the theoretical and historical roots of friendship relations, this meta-analytic review employs a descriptive strategy to organize variables associated with the build-up, maintenance, and dissolution of friendships into four “broadband codes”: positive engagement, conflict management, task activity, and relationship properties.

  • Schneider, B. 2016. Childhood friendships and peer relations: Friends and enemies. New York: Routledge.

    In a comprehensive account of children’s friendship, this book covers a wide range of topics, including how friendships develop, the important role they play across the life span, how they are assessed, and a contemporary look at friendship across environments (e.g., school, cyberspace) and through a cross-cultural lens.

  • Sullivan, H. S. 1953. The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton.

    This book provides one of the few theoretical explanations of friendship and its contribution to development. The origins of close friendships (referred to as “chums”) is explored and positive features associated with such relationships (e.g., sensitivity to another person’s needs, intimacy, mutually satisfying interactions) are described in detail, particularly as they pertain to children entering preadolescence.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.