Mean or nice? These traits could make or break a child's friendships

February 09, 2021

Not all friendships are created equal. Some friends get along; others struggle to avoid conflict. Conventional wisdom holds that the tenor of a friendship with someone who is nice differs from that with someone who is mean, such that the former discourages negative interactions whereas the latter aggravates them. Although it is logical to assume that children who are mean have friendships characterized by growing strife and that children who are nice report little of the same, these assumptions have not yet been tested in the real-world friendships of children.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science are the first to conduct a longitudinal study to examine the extent to which being "nice" (prosocial behavior) and being "mean" (relationally aggressive behavior) shape changes in friend perceptions of their relationship. Using a longitudinal framework, researchers examined over time associations between individual attributes and perceptions of relationship quality in 120 same-gender friendships among children in fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

The researchers examined whether one friend's nice and mean behaviors anticipate changes in the other friend's perceptions of relationship negativity (expressions of anger, conflict, and annoyance) across a period of one to three months. Being mean was defined as classmate reports of relational aggression, including the intentional use of exclusion and gossip to harm others. Being nice was defined as classmate reports of prosocial behavior, including providing assistance and treating others fairly. Findings from the study were published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

The results confirm the widespread assumption that one child's behavioral traits drive the other child's friendship experiences. Children with mean friends described increases in relationship negativity over time, whereas children with nice friends reported that relationship negativity declined. It is perhaps not surprising that relational aggression forecast greater negativity. Being mean is antithetical to expectations of how friends should behave and is likely viewed as a violation of trust. No one wants to be treated ill by a friend. Less obvious is the finding that one friend's nice behavior and forecast decreases in the other friend's perception of negativity in the relationship. Prosocial behaviors assuage hurt feelings, meet needs for support, and increase the rewards of companionship, all of which should inhibit expressions of negativity. Prosocial children may also be adept at conflict resolution, which can help them defuse problems before they erupt into conflict.

"These findings matter because friendship difficulties threaten socio-emotional adjustment in children as well as their ability to maintain friendships," said Brett Laursen, Ph.D., lead author and a professor of psychology in FAU's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, FAU Broward Campuses. "We have long known that negative interactions with friends contribute to subsequent increases in psychological distress and difficulties at school. Friends who don't get along are soon former friends. Children who cannot seem to keep friends report increases in depression and victimization. Conversely, prosocial behaviors are tied to the ability to make new friends and keep old ones. Put simply, behavioral tendencies that threaten friendships threaten well-being. Behavioral tendencies that protect friendships promote child adjustment."

Researchers focused on the late primary and early middle school years, a period when children spend increasing amounts of time with friends and when the closeness and significance of friendships grow commensurately. They studied stable reciprocated friendships - both children nominated one another as friends at both time points. Both friends rated negativity within the friendship at each time point. Classmates rated each child in terms of their prosocial behavior and relationally aggressive behavior.
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Study co-authors are Olivia Valdes, Ph.D. and Lauren Shawcross, M.A, both graduates of the Department of Psychology, FAU's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.

The research is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (0923745) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD096457), awarded to Laursen.

About Florida Atlantic University:

Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU's world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of critical areas that form the basis of its strategic plan: Healthy aging, biotech, coastal and marine issues, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, informatics, lifespan and the environment. These areas provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU's existing strengths in research and scholarship. For more information, visit fau.edu.

Florida Atlantic University

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