Scientists Know Why and How Parents Ruin Kid Friendships

While positive parenting practices don't help kids make friends, depressed and controlling parents increase the risk of their children losing the friends they have.

It is a truth universally acknowledged a young kid in possession of a personality must be in need of a friend . Unfortunately, it’s also a truth universally acknowledged that kids are terrible at maintaining friendships. So when best friendships wax and wane in elementary school, we tend not to worry. That just happens. Except, according to a new study, it doesn’t. Many aborted childhood friendships may be casualties of unhealthy parenting, rather than fickle first grade politics. Researchers found that, while positive parenting practices didn’t help kids make friends, depressed and controlling parents increased the risk of their children losing the friends they had.

“Fewer than 10 percent of first-grade best friendships survived until the sixth grade,” the authors write. “We found clear support for the hypothesis that negative features of parenting, such as depression and psychological control, increase the risk of dissolution of best friendships.”

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Childhood friendships seldom last—one study found that only 35 percent of kindergarten friendships in the U.S. make it to the third grade—but they’re still quite important, from a developmental perspective. Studies have shown that first-grade friendships are linked to academic success later on and that kids who gain and lose friends quickly are at risk of emotional distress. There is also isolated evidence that some kids have trouble making friends because of their parents’ behavior. Depressed and controlling parents, for instance, tend to model bad friendship behavior, decline to supervise activities and get in the way of playdates.

“Coercive and psychologically controlling parents may fail to provide a hospitable environment for guests, who may become disinclined to visit or even extend invitations that may necessitate interacting with an off-putting parent who is strict and punitive,” the authors add.

For this new study, researchers reviewed a large, national data set involving 1,500 elementary school-aged boys in Finland. The boys had completed surveys in the first, second, third, fourth, and sixth grades, listing their closest friends and the people they least enjoyed spending time with. The researchers considered a best friendship dissolved if one member of a reciprocated first-grade best friendship failed to nominate the other at a later time point in time. Meanwhile, parents completed basic depression and parenting style questionnaires.

After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that children whose parents reported significantly above-average depressive symptoms were at a 104 percent greater risk of annual friendship dissolution than their peers. Children of parents who reported above-average controlling behaviors were had a 26 percent increase in the annual risk of losing a best friend.

The findings confirm that parents’ moods and attitudes impact their children’s friendships, and drive home the point that parents who resist getting help to treat their depression or other unhealthy behaviors are not just harming themselves. “Millions of children around the world have parents who are depressed, and millions more have psychologically controlling parents,” the authors conclude. “None of them want to lose friends prematurely; some may suffer irreparable harm should they find themselves friendless as a result.”