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Most girls and boys care deeply about fitting in and getting along during the middle childhood years, especially with their same gender peers. Many desperately want to have someone to play with or to talk to at recess, to sit with at lunch, to choose them first for teams, and to support them when they feel left out or excluded. Forming and maintaining high quality peer relationships in middle childhood requires considerable skill in emotion regulation, particularly in coping with anger in peer interactions. Girls and boys may differ in the strategies they employ for managing anger in their peer interactions, both as a result of differential socialization by parents and authority figures, but also because girls and boys play predominantly with peers of the same gender, at least at school. Because girls and boys most often play in separate peer groups, some have argued that they grow up in different worlds and socialize one another in distinct ways (see Maccoby, 1998, for a powerful account of Two Worlds Theory).

For more than a decade, our research group has been fascinated with how girls and boys manage anger in their peer interactions during the age range of middle childhood. To set the context for our current empirical work, this introduction will describe how our approach emerges from studies within the peer relations tradition, but also from work on emotion regulation and research on gender development. The chapter will next discuss previous research on children's peer relations during middle childhood: children's friendships, networks, and the correlates and determinants of peer status. The majority of the chapter will present some of our current theoretical and empirical work on the following topics: the relation between peer status and children's choices for expressing and controlling emotions, observational research on anger and aggression, and important future directions for enhancing our understanding of girls' and boys' peer worlds.

Research in the area of peer relations has exploded since the 1980s; our knowledge of children's friendships, peer status, and social networks has become increasingly sophisticated (for a review of this massive body of work, see Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998). We now appreciate that friendships confer developmental advantages for children, but also that some children come to have enemies and that these mutual antipathies also influence children's development in important ways (Hartup & Abecassis, 2002). We continue to acknowledge the importance of understanding children's status in their peer groups at school, but we now know that being popular may not be the same as being well-liked (LaFontana & Cillessen, 1998, 2002; Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998), and that there is heterogeneity among both popular (Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2000) and rejected children (French, 1988, 1990).

As exciting as these advances have been, it is striking that few of these studies have seriously considered how emotions and gender influence children's peer relationships. Especially given the current emphasis on the dark side of children's peer relationships, it seems important to consider further how girls and boys manage anger in their interactions with other children during the age range of middle childhood. This chapter will begin with a discussion of how peer relationships may be related to emotion regulation and to gender development, then move on to highlight our current empirical research on these questions. We will conclude with a substantial section on future directions that seem particularly important: gender and aggression, how parents contribute to children's peer relations, and the processes of peer social influence.


Despite the massive numbers of peer relations studies conducted in the past few decades, the most recent large scale review included very little mention of emotions and concluded " . . . not much is known about the possibility that the peer culture can play different functions for boys and girls" (Rubin et al., 1998, p. 682). In commenting on research on gender and emotion, Deaux (2000) noted " . . . these two areas of study demand much of us" (p. 30). Research on emotions has long been fraught with conceptual and measurement problems (see Eisenberg & Fabes, 1999, and Saarni, 1999). Rational discussion of gender can be difficult in a culture so entranced with strong notions of differences that men and women are characterized as coming from different planets. Gender stereotypes pertaining to emotions are so broad, sweeping, and perhaps even misleading to the point of being deceptive because they ignore important factors such as emotional intensity, frequency, modality, and social context (Brody, 1997).

Still, despite these challenges, recent advances suggest that progress is possible in understanding children's peer relationships in light of emotion regulation and gender development. Increased attention to emotional development has resulted in refinements in models of emotion regulation, and a powerful, testable theoretical framework has emerged to guide research on gender and peer relations, called Two Cultures Theory.

Emotion Regulation

Emotion regulation is "the ability to manage one's subjective experience of emotion, especially its intensity and duration, and to manage strategically one's expression of emotion in communicative contexts" (Saarni, 1999, p. 200). Individual differences in emotional reactivity and emotion management relate to many dimensions of social functioning: empathic responding, prosocial behavior, shyness, and externalizing behavior problems (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1999). Children's capacity to control strong feelings in relationships with other children is particularly fascinating because these relationships are horizontal in that they require negotiation among individuals who are approximately similar in age and status (Hartup, 1989), authority figures are not present to provide structure, and children in close relationships frequently construct their own frameworks for social interaction (Laursen, Hartup, & Koplas, 1996).

Several theories and a small but growing body of research suggest that children's capacity to regulate emotions with peers may continue to develop during the middle childhood years. Comprehensive theories of development suggest that children might be particularly well prepared to learn to regulate emotions during middle childhood. Freud (1905) characterized middle childhood as the latency stage, during which children are relatively unperturbed by sexual impulses. During this period, children focus on learning skills and socializing primarily with children of the same gender. Piaget (1983) described these children as in the cognitive developmental stage of concrete operations, as being able to solve real world problems using logical mental procedures. Children may apply these logical principles to their emotional lives as they gain skills in negotiating rules and resolving conflicts. Erikson (1980) portrayed middle childhood as the conflict between industry and inferiority, a time when children work to gain competence in multiple domains, one of which might be emotion regulation in peer interactions. Sullivan (1953) proposed that individuals' personalities and relationships are formed around social needs, qualities we desire in our relationships with others, including warmth, companionship, acceptance, and intimacy (Buhrmester, 1996). These social needs expand with development. According to Sullivan's theory, children in the early elementary years desire a sense of belonging and acceptance with peers, and preadolescents additionally need intimate relationships with same-gender peers (called "chumships" by Sullivan).

In one of the few attempts to theorize more specifically about emotion regulation in older children, Gottman and Mettetal (1986) proposed a developmental account, based on careful observation of interactions between peers. They suggested that young children manage emotions in social interaction by maintaining a climate of agreement and discontinuing play if disagreements arise. Children in middle childhood regulate emotion by constructing elaborate rules for social interaction with same-sex peer groups to contain affective expression and avoid embarrassment. Adolescents regulate emotions by using their new skills in abstract reasoning to subject emotions to logical scrutiny in conversations with friends. The characterization of children in middle childhood as using rules to manage emotion expression fits with a large body of research demonstrating that these children value conformity, rules, and regulations (see Hartup, 1970). Gottman and Mettetal argued that the developmental function of this preoccupation with rules is to contain emotional intensity, that "the external structure is the vehicle for not being so controlled by the emotions" (p. 202).

Other research and theory suggests that not only are these children using explicit rules in their play to manage affect, they are starting to appreciate and obey the largely unspoken rules for expressing and controlling emotions. Children become masters of emotional dissemblance, as they try to cope with conflicting cultural messages about emotions in social interactions: be honest, but be careful about expressing negative feelings if you want to keep friends (Saarni & von Salisch, 1993). Although existing research largely supports this theoretical picture of elementary school-aged children becoming increasingly cool, calm, and collected as they deploy cultural rules for expressing emotions, much remains to be discovered about why some children become so competent in emotion regulation and whether and how girls and boys differ in their strategies for managing anger with peers.

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