How Your Friendships Can Affect Your Children
A new study says moms who display high levels of conflict with friends can negatively affect their children. But dads count, too.
Recently, the University of Missouri came out with a study linking moms’ bad relationships to their children’s own problems in adolescence. The relationships in question aren’t romantic—they’re lousy friendships. Over time, even toddlers who are exposed to the drama of mom’s bad behavior among friends will suffer at some point.
“Mothers who display high levels of conflict with friends may signal to their children that such behavior is acceptable, or even normative in friendships,” according to Gary C. Glick, a doctoral candidate at MU.
This makes perfect sense—and it made me think about my parents, their friendships, my relationships, and my still very young kids.
At first, what struck me about the study is how little it seemed to apply to my own life. As a kid, my mom was always pretty quiet, very pleasant and generally kept to herself. It was the ’70s and then the ’80s; she had several good friends, but in all my life I’ve still never, ever, not even once heard her so much as complain about a friend. That was my dad’s domain.
With a fiery temper and always up for grinding an ax, my dad used to say there were times when he just felt like having a good fight with someone. Letting it all out. Airing grievances, perceived or legitimate, at full volume. The complaints could be petty. “You never bring anything to our barbecues!” But not always. Sometimes friends and even family members did blunder for real, and it always got ugly. My dad was sensitive and a bit insecure, easily offended and a tinderbox of anger. In my early years I thought that was normal.
I even tried it out myself a few times, once blowing up at two friends who came to stay the night at our rental house in seventh grade. By then my mom and dad were divorced and my mom had taken my brother and me to live in a small split-level in town, leaving my dad in the mobile home we used to share. It was my mom’s goal to escape all that feuding—if this was how he behaved with friends, you can imagine how he acted toward her—but as the study points out, kids take these things with them and I was no exception.
“We know that conflict is a normal part of any relationship—be it a relationship between a parent and a child, or a mother and her friends—and we’re not talking physical altercations but verbal conflicts,” Glick said. “But being exposed to high levels of such conflict generally isn’t going to be good for children. Parents should consider whether they are good role models for their children especially where their friends are concerned. When things go awry, parents should talk with their children about how to act with their friends, but more specifically, how not to act.”
Betrayed during a trip to the mall, I accused those two friends of the ultimate tween affront, “You guys went off without me!” Apparently I thought they were having too much fun, laughing and looking at huge hoop earrings while I tried on oversized sweatshirts. There was some yelling and maybe a couple of tears too. To be honest, it was strangely exciting, all that drama unfolding and me right in the center of it. Exhilarating really. I immediately realized that my own anger could control the situation, and I liked it. The one thing I hadn’t accounted for was my friends tiring of the episode. Worn out by my antics, they finally folded, already knowing that it wasn’t even worth it to rail against someone so worked up, so out of control. It would be years before I would grasp this concept myself. It was also embarrassing. What would they tell people at school?
Since then I’ve had my share of silly spats with friends, in my 20s, even into my 30s, but it feels so far away now. I can’t even imagine having fights with my friends now, at 40 with three kids of my own. In my life losing it with friends has been a demon to conquer, a bad habit to grow out of and one that I have no intention of passing on to my own young daughters (ages 4 and 2). That determination is a good thing because it’s apparently very easy to do. From the article, “Results showed that positive friendship qualities were not always imitated by adolescents; however, negative and antagonistic relationship characteristics exhibited by mothers were much more likely to be mimicked by the youth studied.”
When my dad passed away a few years ago after a long bout with cancer, something surprised me about his funeral. My aunt had decorated the community center with candles and sprigs of cedar, pictures were hung and food laid out. It was the same community center where I’d had 4-H meetings about raising horses as a child, been spooked by the annual haunted house, sat on Santa’s lap every Christmas and even had my first taste of champagne in college when friends rented it for a fancy party. On this occasion it was all about my dad but the flood of memories made everything even more surreal. By then I lived in New York City and flew home for the service, packed with friends and family members I hadn’t seen and hadn’t thought of for years.
My uncle spoke. My brother spoke. I said something too. Then, one by one, people came up to the podium to share their stories and astoundingly, each one had the same theme. “I was out once,” they’d say, nervously laughing at first. “Then I was back in.” My dad used to get so mad at everyone, so furious, that he’d disown them. Got him a birthday present that was somehow offensive? You were out. Went overboard with the heckling during a volleyball game? Out. Didn’t show up when you said you would, a cardinal sin to him, O-U-T. I thought I was the only one who’d had the misfortune to err so badly with him over the years but it turns out, I was just one of many. By then, I knew this wasn’t normal, but more than that, I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do—something I wanted to be. Even though it was part of my own makeup, from both a nature and nurture perspective, I was and am determined to flip that switch.
I don’t hold it against my dad anymore; either he didn’t know any better or he couldn’t do any better, and frankly, it doesn’t really matter now. All I know is that I want to do both.
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