Peer Social Status and Emotion Regulation

In addition to having close friends and belonging to a group, children also value acceptance by larger peer groups such as their school classmates, neighborhood playmates, or members of their athletic teams. Sociometric status refers to the degree of a child's social acceptance by a group, as determined by nominations from other group members. Moreno (1934) pioneered the study of sociometry by visiting school classrooms and asking children to vote for those they would most like to sit beside. Moreno advocated sociometric testing as a way of understanding how individuals could preserve their autonomy and spontaneity but also participate in social groups. Moreno entitled his book Who Shall Survive? The Problem of Human Interrelations. Moreno's title hints at precisely the reason that contemporary psychologists have rediscovered sociometric testing, that is, that low acceptance by peers predicts later maladjustment (Kohlberg, LaCrosse, & Ricks, 1972; Kupersmidt & Coie, 1990; Parker & Asher, 1987).

In its modern form, sociometric testing is also conducted in school classrooms, but now researchers present children with rosters of all members of their grade at school and ask them to vote for peers for a variety of types of items. Children identify those peers whom they most like (positive sociometric nominations) and those whom they least like (negative nominations). In addition, researchers may also ask children to nominate peers for a variety of items to access specific behaviors, such as aggression ("Starts fights") and prosocial behavior ("Good leader" or "Is cooperative").

Researchers determine children's peer status by tabulating numbers of positive and negative nominations and assigning children to status groups based on one of several classification systems. In the most commonly used of these systems (Coie, Dodge, & Coppotelli, 1982), children are designated as having five types of peer status: average, popular, rejected, neglected, and controversial. Children in the average group have average numbers of like most and like least votes. Children in the popular group receive high numbers of positive nominations, and low numbers of negative nominations. Children classified as controversial receive high numbers of both positive and negative nominations. Children in the rejected group have a high number of like least nominations and very few nominations for like most. Neglected children receive very few of either positive or negative nominations. One strength of this classification system is that it discriminates between children who are actively disliked and children who are not well known because they are shy or do not interact much socially. Also, this system works well to identify children with extreme degrees of social acceptance or rejection. Using the Coie et al. (1982) system, by far the largest group of children is either not classified or classified as having average status (approximately 52%). Other peer status groups consist of much smaller proportions of children: popular (around 12%), rejected (about 13%), neglected (approximately 13%), and controversial (about 7%).

An extensive body of research has documented the behavioral correlates of these sociometric status groups. In a comprehensive meta-analysis of research on behaviors associated with these five social status groups, Newcomb, Bukowski, and Pattee (1993) documented that popular status is associated with sociability and low levels of aggression and withdrawal, and rejection is related to high levels of aggression and isolation and fewer positive interactions overall (but, as noted earlier, more recent research has reminded us that neither popular boys (French, 1988; Rodkin et al., 2000) nor popular girls (French, 1990) are homogeneous groups). Certainly these results suggest that the kind of extreme lack of emotional control that might be evident in aggressive behavior is associated with peer rejection (Coie & Kupersmidt, 1983). Much remains to be known about the relation between children's sociometric status and other more normative types of emotion regulation. Many of the behavioral correlates described in the Newcomb et al. meta-analysis relate to emotions, such as aggression and depression and loneliness, but because these broad categories of behavior are multiply determined, it is difficult to disentangle the role of emotion regulation. In their discussion, Newcomb et al. recommended that researchers broaden the types of question we ask about peer status, "especially the role of emotionality in children's peer relations" (p. 124).

In reviewing research on the relation between emotional responding and social competence, Hubbard and Coie (1994) suggested that positive peer status may be a reasonable criterion for social competence, at least in the peer domain. Although little empirical evidence exists, they argued that it is reasonable to expect that positive peer status would be associated with being able to recognize one's own emotions and the emotional displays of others, the ability to regulate emotional expressions, and the capacity to respond sympathetically to the emotional displays of others. To move forward in our understanding of the relation between peer relations and emotional competence, they suggested that researchers more thoroughly investigate differences between sociometric status groups on emotion variables.

Unfortunately, many studies to date have not examined gender differences in correlates of peer status (Newcomb et al., 1993), and whether peer status is related to different types of emotion regulation strategies for girls and for boys. We have sought to begin to examine these questions, by conducting questionnaire and observational studies to try to understand the relation between peer status and coping with angry provocation, for girls and for boys.


Our empirical research on peer relations and emotion regulation in middle childhood has been guided by several goals. We focus on interactions with peers because we think that children's capacity to regulate emotions might be most apparent in these contexts about which they care deeply, when authority figures are less in control. Although we acknowledge that positive emotions may also be regulated, we more carefully examine regulation of negative emotions such as anger because we believe that managing these is most challenging. We use combinations of questionnaire and observational methods; what children think and say about their emotional behaviors is interesting and important, but does not necessarily correspond to their actual behavior when provoked. We recognize that emotion regulation may well be specific to social context, and we try to study emotional behavior in contexts that make sense for both genders. Finally, we seek to understand how gender might influence children's expressions of anger and aggression, not only by examining gender differences in the frequency of key behaviors, but also by investigating gender differences in the relation between peer status and children's strategies for regulating strong emotions.

Peer Social Status and Children's Choices About the Expression and Control of Positive and Negative Emotions

In early studies, we used questionnaires to investigate the relation between peer social status and children's choices about the expression and control of positive and negative emotions (Underwood, 1997; Underwood, Coie, & Herbsman, 1992). Given that children who are actively disliked and children who behave aggressively can seem so emotionally dysregulated, we were interested in what they understand about social conventions for expression of emotions, called display rules.

In a study of children's understanding of display rules for anger, children in the third, fifth, and seventh grades watched videotaped vignettes of anger-provoking situations, and responded to questions about how they would feel, what kind of facial expression they would have, what they would say and do, and the reasons for any discrepancies between how they would feel and how they would behave (Underwood et al., 1992). Half of the vignettes depicted provocation by teachers (for example, a teacher falsely accusing a child of making a mess and scolding the child harshly); the other half of the vignettes portrayed provocation by peers (another child wrecking a tower of dominos). Children's responses were coded as display rules if they said they would feel angry, but that they would behave in a neutral or positive manner. Classroom sociometric data were available for all participants; thus we were also able to examine the relation between understanding of display rules for anger and peer rejection and peer nominations for aggression.

Overall, the results showed that children's understanding of display rules for anger is complex and related to context, gender, and age. Children reported masking anger more often with teachers than with peers. Boys' masking of anger increased with age, but girls' reported use of display rules decreased with age. Contrary to hypotheses, this study found that aggressive children did not differ consistently from nonaggressive peers in their understanding of display rules for anger; even highly aggressive children reported frequently that they would mask expressions of anger. Understanding of display rules may not account for individual differences in aggressive behavior, perhaps because aggressive children fight impulsively when they are furious and are unlikely to invoke display rules even if they know exactly what those rules are.

The relation between peer sociometric status and children's understanding of display rules for anger was much more complex than rejected children masking anger less often (Underwood, 1992). For the peer context, rejected girls reported display rules for anger less often than average status girls. For the peer context, there were not status group differences for boys on reporting of display rules. Expressing anger openly may not violate the norms of the peer culture for males.

In a subsequent study (Underwood, 1997), we sought to explore the relation between peer social status and several aspects of the pragmatics of emotion regulation with peers (Parke, 1994): children's choices to express and to control positive and negative emotions, and expectations of peer reactions to different emotional responses. Children in the second, fourth, and sixth grades responded to hypothetical vignettes read aloud, depicting situations provoking strong emotion in classroom situations: happiness at good fortune, pride in accomplishments, sadness, anger, disappointment, and embarrassment. For each hypothetical vignette, children were asked to imagine that they were in the situation, experiencing the designated strong emotion. For each situation, children responded to two types of questions. First, they chose one of four possible responses, arranged on a continuum from most expressive to most dissembling: expressing the emotion strongly, expressing the emotion but in a subdued fashion, masking the emotion by maintaining a neutral expression, and showing another more acceptable emotion. Next, for each of the four possible responses, children were asked to imagine enacting the particular emotional response in the presence of peers, and to rate each possible type of expression on how much it would make other children "want to be your friend." Last, children responded to a brief sociometric measure, including items for "like most" and "like least."

Overall, the findings suggested that children's choices to express or control emotions depended on both the type of emotion and individual difference variables such as gender, age, and peer status. As expected, all children reported that they would mask negative emotions more than positive feelings, although even for the positive emotions, children rarely endorsed strong open expression. There were not gender differences in children's choices of emotion expression.

Interestingly, the results provided only limited support for the hypothesis that, in general, older children would mask emotions more. Older children did report masking happiness more than younger children, but said that they would be more openly expressive of anger and disappointment. Contrary to predictions, there were no significant effects for peer social status on children's choices of emotional expressions. However, for expectations of peer reactions to emotional expressions, regardless of the type of emotional expression, rejected children thought that others would respond negatively to their behaviors. This finding confirms previous evidence that rejected children are perhaps painfully aware that others react negatively to them (see Asher, Parkhurst, Hymel, & Williams, 1990, for a review). Rejected children's uniformly negative expectations suggest that these children may be cognizant of possible reputation bias (Hymel, Wagner, & Butler, 1990) and believe that peers will dislike them no matter what they do. All children expected the most negative peer consequences for expressing anger, both strongly and moderately.

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