The study emphasises the importance of addressing the impact on children’s social skills when parents are mentally unwell or highly controlling.

Sustaining friendships at school is a key component in the development of children’s social skills and predicts later social and academic success. At the same time, low-quality parenting at home can inhibit children’s social skills at school. With these facts in mind, researchers in Finland followed 1,523 children through primary school (7-12 years), measuring the extent to which they sustained the friendships made in their first year. Friendships made in the first year typically dissolve at a high rate (in this study, 52% dissolved in the first year and 92% had dissolved by the sixth year). Yet the researchers found that first-year friendships were even less likely to be sustained when a mother or father reported either depression or psychologically controlling parenting.

The study of children’s social skills included only children who were living with two biological parents and had at least one reciprocated same-sex friendship. Friendships were measured once each year by asking children in a class to name three other children they most liked to spend time with, and three they least liked to spend time with. The researchers recorded dyads (two children naming each other as friends) in the first year and then observed whether these dyads persisted in later years. In Finland, children stay in the same class throughout primary school, creating a favourable environment to observe friendships and the development social skills.

Using standardised measures, the researchers also assessed parenting style in the first year, as well as parents’ symptoms of depression, and then analysed whether these influenced children’s social skills as measured by friendship stability.

A child’s social skills are known to be influenced by parental depression and parental psychological control. The average depression score for all the parents was 1.79 on a five-point scale. Children of parents who scored at least 4.28 (indicating clinical depression) were considerably more like to see their friendships dissolve from year to year. Similarly, though to a lesser extent, high scores for parental psychological control (4.61 or more on a five-point scale, compared to the average of 2.57).

The following table shows the risk of a first-year friendship dissolving in the second, third and sixth grades for children of these parents, compared to the average for all parents.

Risk of friendship dissolution Overall average Psychologically controlling parents Depressed parents
2nd grade 46% 52% 64%
3rd grade 35% 41% 53%
6th grade 30% 35% 47%

These findings confirm other research showing that children’s social skills can be harmed by low-quality parenting.

Depressed parents can inhibit children’s social skills by being disconnected, by not coaching or supervising peer play, and by restricting social engagement. A child with a depressed parent may carry some of the negative emotions at home into friendships at school. Depression in parents is known to undermine children’s emotional development and can lead to more anxiety and low moods.

Psychologically controlling parenting can also undermine children’s social skills. Parents who are psychologically controlling may fail to provide a hospitable environment at home for children’s friends. Controlling parents are linked to lower self-esteem in children, which is also important for friendships. Coercion at home can spill over into coercive behaviour by the child at school. Other research has shown that a child with controlling parents shows less empathy and is less likely to do good things for others. Such children are also more likely to experience anxiety and low mood.

The researchers also looked at positive parenting but found no correlations between parental warmth and good health and children’s social skills. They surmised that the measures of positive parenting may not have been exact enough to pick up particular aspects that influence children’s social skills.

Header photo: Viktor_K79. Creative Commons. 

References

 Dickson DJ, Huey M, Laursen B, Kiuru N & Nurmi J-E (2018), Parent contributions to friendship stability during the primary school years, Journal of Family Psychology 32.2