The researchers found that a best friend buffered the effects of negative experiences. When a best friend was present, there was little change in cortisol level as the student’s experience increased in negativity. However when a best friend was absent, there was an increase in cortisol as the negativity of the experience increased. Similarly, when a best friend was present, there was no change in the student’s global self-worth in the face of very negative experiences. However, when the best friend was absent, the student’s global self-worth rating was lower in the face of very negative experiences. The researchers concluded that the presence of a best friend during negative experiences protects against decreased global self-worth and activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis.
An important issue is whether lack of friends is a precipitant or a consequence of a psychiatric disorder such as depression. Alternatively, there may be an interaction over time between depression and lack of friends. In a recent study, Kochel and colleagues3 examined 3 models for the predictive association between depressive symptoms and poor peer relationships. The interpersonal model predicts that poor peer relationships precipitate depressive symptoms. The symptoms-driven model predicts that depressive symptoms contribute to poor peer relationships. The transactional model predicts that depressive symptoms and poor peer relationships are reciprocally associated over time.
This longitudinal study was made up of 486 youths who were in grade 4 at baseline. Follow-up assessments were conducted in grades 5 and 6. Data were obtained from study participants, their classmates, teachers, and parents. Depressive symptoms were evaluated using parent and teacher reports. Peer victimization was assessed using student, peer, and teacher reports. Low peer acceptance was assessed by peer report.
The symptoms-driven model best explained the relationship between depressive symptoms and poor peer relations. Depressive symptoms in fourth grade predicted peer victimization in fifth grade, which predicted low peer acceptance in sixth grade. These investigators concluded that depressive symptoms lead to future difficulties with peer interactions.
The finding from this study provides optimism that adequate treatment of a child’s depression will improve peer relationships. However, many children have been depressed for a significant period before treatment, which can exacerbate adverse effects on peer relations.
It is important for clinicians to address the issue of friendships when evaluating and treating children. Parents should be apprised about the critical need for a best friend or friends for their children. If a child is having difficulty in making friends in school, extracurricular activities may provide a setting for interaction with children who have similar interests. Psychotherapy can also promote skills aimed at positive peer interactions.