Do as I say, not as I do. Sounds good in theory, but as every mom and dad knows, it doesn’t work as a parenting tactic. Now there’s more evidence that kids may mimic their parents behaviors, even when it comes to the quality of their friendships.
The latest research delves into a relatively unexplored area of the parent-child dynamic: how mothers’ friendships affect their adolescent kids’ same-sex friendships and overall well-being.
The study, to be published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, examined whether the positive or negative qualities of mothers’ friendships (not enough fathers agreed to participate) had an effect on their adolescent kids’ friendships. The investigators accomplished this by giving school kids in fifth, eighth and eleventh grades and their mothers questionnaires that explored the quality of their most important friendships. They also gave the parents and kids tests of emotional health. When mothers reported high levels of negative quality with a good friend (such as getting on each others’ nerves, getting upset or mad at each other often), kids were likely to report similar verbal antagonism and heated arguments with a close friend.
So could moms be good role models for their children by having more positive connections with their friends? Unfortunately, no. The study’s lead author Gary Glick, a doctoral candidate in psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, says the team did not find a strong link between mothers’ positive friendship qualities and those of their teens. “Maybe,” Glick says, “kids are more likely to notice adults screaming at each other.”
The fact that adolescents’ friendships mimic those of a parent, is not surprising, given that development is about learning and imitating behaviors. “Adolescents,” says clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, are in the midst of forming their internal templates for social norms and therefore parental role models are critical. In fact, watching adolescents interact with their peers often is a mirror of how parents interact with their own peers.”
But the fact that the mothers’ positive friendships did not seem to filter down to their children’s own relationships could simply be the result of the artificial way the relationships were defined in the study. Dr. Gayani DeSilva, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, CA, notes that friendships are often a complicated mix of positive and negative interactions. The study authors, he says, “divide parental friendships into either positive or negative categories, when healthy friendships are much more complex than that. The more helpful and developmentally appropriate perspective would be to examine how teens are influenced by parental conflict resolution patterns within their friendships.”
In fact, Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist and author of “Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey. We’re Going to Grandma’s,” says he has observed the opposite effect over 40 years of working with families.“If they witness their parents continuing loyalty, commitment and unwavering commitment to friends,” he says, “through both good times and bad times, they see what it takes for them to possess such cherished friendships. They take mental notes and try to imitate and adopt the attitudes, behavior and commitment they see present in their parents’ successful friendships.”
Kendrick says that the study, which is “a snapshot in time,” does not consider enough variables in the teens’ and parents’ lives and that it does not adequately examine other possible reactions that adolescents might have to their mothers’ problems with friends. “Over and over I have heard kids of all ages tell me privately, in confidence,” Kendrick says, “that they are seriously worried about their parents on many levels.” And conflicts with family and friends were among these worries.
Such internalizing of their parents’ conflicts could have more profound implications for adolescents beyond just the types of interactions they have with their own friends. In the study, mothers with high levels of negativity in their friendships were also likelier to have kids who were more anxious and depressed than those with more positive interactions with their friends. And this, says Glick, was independent of whether the mothers were anxious and depressed themselves.
However children are interpreting and responding to their parents’ choices when it comes to friendships, the study suggests that these decisions could have a greater effect on understanding teen friendships and fostering them in a healthy way than previously thought. “Developing more adult-like relationships with their peers,” says Stephen Gray Wallace, Director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education at Susquehanna University, “is one of the primary developmental tasks of adolescence.” And parents, it seems, can play an important role in pushing that development in a positive direction, even if they aren’t doing so in a direct and conscious way.