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Can kids with strong bonds to parents make friends, adapt well in relationships?

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Would you marry a man who hated his mother or father or any siblings as he grew up and moves far away from them as an adult, perhaps feeling inferior that his income and/or education doesn't measure up to his closest relatives? A new study looks at children with strong bonds to parents and their ability to make better friends, but do better friends refer to friends who are more adaptive, friends of higher moral values, higher social class, or friends more supportive with purpose and compassion to do the right thing? Actually, the reference in the study is to more socially responsive, flexible, and responsible friends. Kids with strong bonds to parents make better friends, and can adapt in relationships, says a new study, "Getting Acquainted: Actor and Partner Effects of Attachment and Temperament on Young Children's Peer Behavior," published online in the June 2014 issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.

What social skills does a three-year-old bring to interactions with a new peer partner? If the individual has strong bonds to his parents, the child is likely to be a positive, responsive playmate, and the kids will be able to adapt to a difficult peer by asserting the child's most pressing needs, according to the new University of Illinois study.

The findings shed light on the dynamic nature of young children’s peer behavior and indicate that attachment security is related to behavior in expected ways during initial interactions with a new peer, but may change as children become acquainted, notes the study's abstract. "Securely attached children are more responsive to suggestions or requests made by a new peer partner. A child who has experienced a secure attachment relationship with caregivers is likely to come into a new peer relationship with positive expectations," explains Nancy McElwain, according to the June 19, 2014 news release, "Kids with strong bonds to parents make better friends, can adapt in relationships." McElwain is a University of Illinois professor of human development.

In the study, the researchers assessed the security of child-mother attachment relationships for 114 children at 33 months, and parents reported on their child's temperament, including anger proneness and social fearfulness. At 39 months, children of the same gender were randomly paired with one another and observed over three laboratory visits in a one-month period.

Securely attached kids were more responsive to a new peer partner the first time they met, even if the new child was prone to anger

Kids with secure attachments continued to respond favorably on the second and third visits when the peer partner's anger was low—but not when the other child's anger was high, the researcher says, according to the news release. When a child is paired with a peer who is quick to become frustrated or angry, the positive social expectations of a child with a secure attachment are likely not met. The securely attached child may then adapt to the situation and dampen his responsiveness to the challenging partner, McElwain says.

"A more securely attached child was also likely to use suggestions and requests rather than commands and intrusive behavior (such as grabbing toys away) during play with an anger-prone peer during the first two visits. By the final visit, a child with a secure attachment had adjusted to the controlling assertiveness of her anger-prone partner by becoming more controlling herself," she explains, according to the news release.

The study shows that a child's level of attachment security, their partner's tendency to become angry, and how well the children knew each other (earlier vs. later visits) combined to predict a child's behavior

"Behavior toward a peer partner depended on the partner's temperament as much as the child's own attachment. Consideration of both factors in combination is needed to understand a child's behavior toward a new peer," McElwain says, according to the news release. The child's own temperament also played a role in understanding her behavior toward new peer partners.

Children whose parents described them as socially fearful were less assertive overall, she writes. "But don't confuse a difficult temperament with an insecure attachment. You may have a fussy infant, but if you respond to him sensitively, he will develop a strong bond with his parents and will likely go on to enjoy positive, close relationships with others," she explains in the news release.

Authors of the new study include the U of I's McElwain and Brian G. Ogolsky, Jennifer M. Engle of Vanderbilt University, and Ashley S. Holland of Edgewood College. Funding was provided by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Research Board.

Looking for more articles by Anne Hart? You also may wish to check out links to Anne Hart's Examiner articles on her Facebook page.

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