The Surprising Way Parents Cause Childhood Friendships to End

The Surprising Way Parents Cause Childhood Friendships to End

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Study authors have new insight into why most grade school friendships fall apart.

Friendships fade through the years, but a new study suggests parents—particularly those with mental health problems—might be to blame for childhood friendships that fizzle out.

To determine how parenting styles affect their children’s friendships, researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland analyzed data from 1,523 children (766 boys) in first through sixth grade. Researchers assessed behavioral control (curfews and monitoring), psychological control (shaming and guilt), and warmth and affection. They also isolated any parental mental health challenges to determine how those issues shape parenting.

The research, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, shows that children with a clinically depressed parent had a 104 percent higher risk of losing a best friend. Children with psychologically controlling parents were also more likely to lose a best friend, though the results weren’t 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 and graduate studies coordinator in the Department of Psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “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.”     

Unfortunately there was no evidence that positive parenting traits like warmth and affection enhanced the stability of children’s 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 suggest, regardless of parental involvement, most grade school friendships don’t last. Nearly 50 percent of best friendships dissolved within a year and fewer than 10 percent survived from first grade through sixth grade.

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