Qualities of Controversial Children

Why "controversial" children have several conflicting qualities

Boys playing outside on a sports cout in a park
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The term "controversial" relates, not to actual controversy, but to peer acceptance. It is a specialized term used by researchers interested in sociometrics (the study of social status). Sociometric researchers explore the status of children by conducting surveys and assigning one of five labels:

In surveys conducted amongst peers, children are asked to rate their peer group (usually their class) by responding to questions such as:

  • Who are your three closest friends in this group? 
  • What three people in this group do you LEAST admire? 
  • With which three people in this group would most enjoy going to a picnic?

What Are Controversial Children Like?

"Controversial children" receive both highly positive and highly negative ratings from their peers. In other words, some peers love the controversial child (i.e., call him a "best friend") while others strongly dislike him.

Controversial children have characteristics that set them apart from their peers. They tend to be more aggressive than others their age. Because of this, they often cause problems in the classroom and create interpersonal troubles with peers. 

Controversial children are often as socially competent as popular children, and have the capacity to be friendly, helpful and cooperative.

They tend to be natural leaders and are often respected for their willingness to jump in and take charge.

Thus controversial children have both negative and positive characteristics, leading some kids — and teachers — to think that these types of children are wonderful while causing others to think they are nothing but trouble.

Researchers believe that there are relatively few children who fit the "controversial" profile. Perhaps, as a result, little research has been done to better understand this group. Among the few things researchers can say about the controversial child is that:

  • More boys than girls fit the controversial profile
  • Girls are more likely to be "controversial" in community settings than in the classroom
  • Controversial children often have a good deal in common with popular children
  • It is not unusual for a controversial child to change status over time, and often join the "popular" group as a result of their strong social skills. 

Related terms: average child, neglected child, popular children, rejected child, sociometric status

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  • Furman, Wyndol, McDunn, Christine, and Young, Brennan. The Role of Peer and Romantic Relationships in Adolescent Affective Development. In N. B. Allen & L. Sheeber (Eds.) Adolescent Emotional Development and the Emergence of Depressive Disorders. 2008. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  • Wentzel, Kathryn R., & Asher, Steven R. The Academic Lives of Neglected, Rejected, Popular, and Controversial Children. Child Development. 1995. 66:754-763.