Friends in Violent Places

For most kids, making friends involves finding other children with similar interests, whose company they enjoy, and who like them back. A new study by sociologists Anjanette M. Chan Tack and Mario L. Small (2017) shows that for children growing up in communities where violence is prevalent, making friends is much more complicated.

The researchers conducted in-depth, open-ended, one-on-one interviews with 44 children ages 11 to 15 fron two schools in high-poverty/high-crime-rate areas of Chicago. They supplemented these interviews with naturalistic observations of children interacting at school as well as additional interviews with parents and teachers.

They found that, rather than choosing friends based simply on shared hobbies, these children approached peer relationships cautiously and strategically—with the goal of staying safe.

Social strategies of kids in violent neighborhoods

Specifically, interviewees reported using combinations of these five strategies to navigate their social worlds against the backdrop of constant threat from pervasive and unpredictable violence:

1) Seeking friends who offer protection

The most common theme involved having friends who can provide physical protection. Kids spoke about having or wanting friends who “have my back.” These friends stick up for and defend each other or prevent others from attacking. As one boy explained, “Rob was like, ‘Stick around me, ain’t nobody goin’ to mess with you.” Children expected only very close friends to defend them.

2) Avoiding close friendships

Another common theme was avoiding close friendships in order to avoid trouble. For some kids this involved deliberately isolating themselves, by staying apart from peers. Other kids used this strategy in a more subtle way: They interacted with and even enjoyed talking with peers in a casual way, but they avoided revealing much about themselves, for fear this information could be used against them. One girl commented, “I don’t like people to know my business.”

3) Testing potential friends

Some children described cautiously observing peers to see whether they could be trusted before befriending them. One girl stated that knowing someone for two years was not long enough to be certain of their true character. Some children even reported testing peers’ trustworthiness by sharing a small piece of information and then seeing if that information spread to others.

4) Finding friends who can diffuse threats

Chan Tack and Small explain that some children chose friends who could help with what they call “relational repair work.” When a child was insulted by a peer, friends could either defend the child by telling the insulter to stop or publicly urge the child not to fight, thereby giving the child a face-saving way to avoid violence.

5) Relying on relatives

Many children in violent neighborhoods rely on members of their extended family for friendship. Siblings, cousins, and other relatives offer protection and loyalty. However, the researchers noted that sometimes obligations to support relatives can pull kids into conflicts.

When kids are focused on survival

Overall, Chan Tack and Small describe the approach to friendship used by children in violent neighborhoods as “unusually strategic, highly malleable, and notably heterogeneous” (p. 225).

On one hand, these strategies reflect sophisticated thinking. The children in this study showed strength, resourcefulness, and resilience by finding ways to survive in their harsh circumstances.

On the other hand, these strategies are heart-breaking. No child should have to live like this.

The theme underlying all of the friendship strategies described in this study is the children’s belief that they must be constantly vigilant because violence and danger are common, most people are untrustworthy, and the risk of getting hurt is always present. What a terrible burden for children to carry!

We know from countless studies and common sense that poverty and exposure to violence negatively affect children’s educational, physical, and emotional well-being. This study suggests that it also affects how kids relate to their peers. Instead of focusing on the simple fun of friendship and the deep satisfaction of being known and accepted by a friend, these children have to tiptoe cautiously through and around friendships while focusing on survival.

Addressing the bigger issues

Bernice Lott (2008) states that psychologists’ responses to the problem of violent neighborhoods tend to focus on bolstering the coping skills of individual children or families. She argues that this reflects an implicit acceptance of violent neighborhoods and the poverty, racism, and social injustice that create them.

Inequality is a huge and growing problem in our country, not just for children living in dangerous neighborhoods, but for all of us. As Lott insists, “…an apathetic or uncaring public policy that permits children to be exposed to chronic violence is as much a form of maltreatment as other more direct forms that we decry” (p. 11).


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© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.