Human beings are social animals; they mature over a long period in dyadic, small group, and other group contexts. Thus, it is not surprising that a growing body of evidence suggests that people are healthier and happier when they experience social belonging. Conversely, exclusion and social isolation are perceived as painful and are associated with a variety of negative affective experiences including anxiety, depression, anger, and shame (MacDonald & Leary, 2005). A powerful theme in developmental literature is the importance of early attachments and integration in a warm, responsive parent-child relationship for positive mental health. As the radius of significant relationships expands from childhood to adolescence, a sense of peer group membership is likely to develop. The purpose of the present study is to explore the relationship of three aspects of peer group membership--peer group affiliation, the importance of peer group membership, and a sense of peer group belonging to behavior problems in adolescence.
A sense of group belonging is a psychological construct (Kiesner, Cardinu, Poulin, & Bucci, 2002; Stone & Brown, 1999). Adolescents participate in a complex social environment populated by many friendship groups, cliques, and crowds. The desire to belong to a group may influence an adolescent's behavior well before he or she is actually a member of the group. Individuals may change their behavior in order to gain peer acceptance. Thus, one's peer group affiliation does not need to be reciprocated in order to influence behavior. Research with adolescents supports the relevance of group belonging for positive adjustment. Closeness in peer relationships is positively correlated with popularity and good social reputation (Cauce, 1986), self-esteem (McGuire & Weisz, 1982), and psychosocial adjustment (Buhrmester, 1990).
Three Components of Peer Group Membership
The literature suggests that there are at least three different ways to assess adolescents' perceptions of group membership. One is to ask adolescents about whether they belong to a group, often with a request to name the group or to identify themselves as a member of one or more groups in their social environment. This approach captures an adolescent's self-perception of group affiliation (Turner, 1987; Urberg, 1992; Prinstein & LeGreca, 2002). Adolescent identity development is thought to emerge within the context of these self-reported group affiliations. These self-reports do not need to be reciprocated in order to be valid indicators of the influence that such a group affiliation might have on an adolescent (Aloise-Young, Graham, & Hansen, 1994). In this study, we ask adolescents to report on their friendship groups and do not distinguish between cliques and crowds. We only ask if they belong to one of the groups they mention.
Second, among the cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects of group membership, research has found that the affective nature of a sense of group belonging is the most internally consistent (Hinkle, Taylor, Fox-Cardamone, & Crook, 1989; Pombeni, Kirchler, & Palmonari, 1990). The affective aspect of group belonging includes feelings of being a valued group member, and being proud of one's group. This is similar to the dimension of quality in a friendship as measured by Parker and Asher (1993).
A third approach is to find out how important it is for an adolescent to be a member of a peer group. Not all adolescents are equally concerned about being a member of a group. We expect that feelings of social distress are greatest for those adolescents who strongly desire group membership and do not experience a sense of group belonging. These are the adolescents who are likely to report the most behavior problems (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). The current study considers each of these three approaches in evaluating the relationship of a sense of group membership to behavior problems. …