A new study sheds light on why childhood friendships fall apart and is the first to show that parents, particularly those with mental health problems, often play a role in these friendship breakups.
The findings, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, show that among children with clinically depressed parents, the risk of best friendship dissolution increased by up to 104 percent. Children with psychologically controlling parents also showed a similar effect, although not quite as dramatic.
“Depressed and psychologically controlling parents create an affective climate that is detrimental to a child’s well-being, with problems that spill over into the peer social world. Best friendships are one causality of this affective spillover,” said Brett Laursen, Ph.D., co-author of the study and a professor in the department of psychology in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science at Florida Atlantic University.
“We believe that children with depressed and psychologically controlling parents are not learning healthy strategies for engaging with other people, which could have long-term consequences for their future relationships.”
For the study, researchers from FAU and the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland conducted an analysis to identify which parental traits are linked to the stability of their children’s friendships. They evaluated data from 1,523 children (766 boys) in first through sixth grade.
The researchers examined self reports of parental depressive symptoms as well as parenting styles and used these factors to predict the occurrence and timing of the dissolution of best friendships from the beginning to the end of elementary school (grades one to six).
The researchers assessed three commonly recognized parenting styles: behavioral control, such as curfews and monitoring; psychological control, such as shaming and guilt; and warmth and affection. They also took into account parental depression as well as the children’s social status among peers or how well-liked they are by other children.
“We already know that peer status plays an important role in friendship outcomes. For example, well-liked children have more long-lasting relationships than do their classmates,” said Laursen. “Our study is the first to include both parent characteristics and peer social status in the same model to identify the unique contributions of parents to child friendship stability.”
The research team wanted to determine whether negative parenting traits such as manipulative and coercive behaviors could disrupt children’s friendships.
The findings show clear support for their hypothesis that the negative features of parenting, such as depression and psychological control, increase the risk that best friendships would end.
For children with clinically depressed parents, for example, the risk of best friendship dissolution increased by up to 104 percent. There was a similar, although not quite as dramatic, increase in the risk of best friendship breakups for children with psychologically controlling parents.
In fact, parental depression and psychological control uniquely predicted subsequent child friendships breaking up, above and beyond contributions of peer difficulties.
However, the researchers were surprised to find no evidence that positive parenting behaviors like warmth and affection enhanced the stability of children’s best friendships.
“We were hoping that positive behaviors would help extend the life of friendships and that it would be a buffer or a protective factor,” said Laursen. “This wasn’t the case — warmth and affection don’t appear to make that much of a difference. It’s the negative characteristics of parents that are key in determining if and when these childhood friendships end.”
The findings also show that most childhood friendships are transitory. For example, fewer than 10 percent of first-grade best friendships survived from the first to the sixth grade, with roughly half (48 percent) dissolving within a year of initiation.
Source: Florida Atlantic University