Moms Behaving Badly? Conflict in Mothers’ Friendships with Other Adults May Impact Adolescents’ Social and Emotional Adjustment

What does it mean to say that parents should “set a good example” for their children? Although modeling positive behavior and values may initially come to mind, in what context is this example set? Many such contexts are interpersonal, such as how a parent interacts with his or her spouse or with their children themselves. But it may be that parents’ behavior in contexts outside of the family, such as interacting with their own adult peers, can influence children as well.

Such an idea has received little empirical attention, despite its inclusion in several ecological models of child development (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986; Cochran & Brassard, 1979). However, the friendships that parents have with other adults may be an important factor in understanding youths’ own peer relationships. Some empirical evidence, although limited, suggests that parents’ peer relationships may be similar to the peer relationships of their children. For instance, children of mothers with larger friendship networks tend to have larger friendship networks themselves (Homel, Burns, & Goodnow, 1987; Markiewicz, Doyle, & Brendgen, 2001; Uhlendorff, 2000). Moreover, in a study of 9- and 10-year-old children, Simpkins and Parke (2001) found that children of mothers whose friendships with other adults were characterized by high levels of conflict were more likely to report heightened conflict in their own friendships.  

In a recent paper we published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence (i.e., Glick, Rose, Swenson, & Waller, 2013), we set to expand upon past research on the impact of mothers’ friendships in several ways. First, we recruited a sample of early, middle, and late adolescents, as well as their mothers, to test whether the links between mothers’ friendships and the friendships of their children extend to the adolescent years. Although one prior study reported similar qualities in both mothers’ friendships with other adults and their adolescent children’s friendships (Markiewicz et al., 2001), this study relied upon adolescents’ perceptions of their mothers’ friendship quality and did not survey mothers themselves; hence, their results could be due to shared-method variance. Therefore, our study provides a more conservative test of the proposed similarities between mothers’ and adolescents’ friendships.  

Second, in testing the links between mothers’ and adolescents’ friendships we controlled for both mothers’ and adolescents’ reports of their relationship quality with each other. We also controlled for youths’ reports of their own friendship quality when testing links to youths’ emotional adjustment. This allowed us to better assert that the impact of mothers’ friendships on their children is unique and not due the influence of these other, more proximal relationships.

Finally, we also tested whether the qualities of mothers’ friendships would impact their children’s emotional adjustment. Ecological models of depression suggest that the nature of parents’ relationships with adults outside of the family may be an important factor to consider (e.g., Cicchetti & Toth, 1998). We controlled for mothers’ emotional adjustment (as well as mother-adolescent relationship quality and youths’ own friendship quality) in these analyses to assess the unique impact of mothers’ friendships on their adolescents’ emotional adjustment. Our results produced three sets of findings:

1. Mothers’ friendships with other adults may be similar to adolescents’ own friendships

Mothers and their adolescent children reported similar qualities in their respective friendships. It may be that the friendships that mothers have with other adults serve as a model for behaviors that adolescents then carry over into their own friendships. It is important to note that the link between mother friendships and adolescent friendships emerged even after controlling for both mothers’ and adolescents’ reports of their relationship quality with each other. Thus, it appears that how mothers interact with their adult friends may have a unique impact on adolescents’ own friendship adjustment.

2. Negative (but not positive) qualities in mothers’ friendships seem to matter

In the present study, separate analyses were estimated for positive friendship qualities and negative friendship qualities. Although heightened levels of negative qualities in mothers’ friendships were associated with such levels in their children’s friendships, the same could not be said for positive qualities. As a result, the negative qualities of mothers’ friendships (e.g., conflict, antagonism) may have a more salient impact on adolescent friendships than more positive qualities (e.g., companionship, affection).

3. Negative qualities in mothers’ friendships may lead to emotional maladjustment

Whether the qualities of mothers’ friendships were related to adolescents’ emotional adjustment (e.g., depression, anxiety) also was examined with separate analyses for positive and negative qualities. Although heightened levels of negative qualities in mothers’ friendships were associated with higher levels of emotional maladjustment among adolescents, positive qualities in mothers’ friendships were unrelated to lower maladjustment. Therefore, we conclude that the negative qualities of mothers’ friendships (e.g., conflict, antagonism) may have a more salient impact on adolescents’ emotional adjustment than more positive qualities (e.g., companionship, affection).


First and foremost, the results of the present study suggest that mothers’ friendships with other adults can impact adolescents’ social and emotional adjustment. Rather than being a domain too distal to consider, parents should consider what the social relationships that they have with their adult peers mean for their children. Further, these results suggest that the negative features of mothers’ friendships are more salient to adolescents than the positive features of these relationships. It stands to reason that adolescents would be more likely to notice a heated argument rather than a gesture of companionship or affection in their mothers’ friendships. Moreover, the impact that these negative interactions have on adolescents’ emotional adjustment, whether through empathetic distress (i.e., vicariously experiencing their mothers’ own stressors), feelings of embarrassment, or some other mechanism, is far greater than the impact of positive interactions. Such findings fit with considerable evidence from the social psychology literature suggesting that the impact of negative behaviors is far more salient than that of positive behaviors (see Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenhauer, & Vohs, 2001; Rozin & Royzman, 2001). As Baumeister et al. (2001) put it, “Bad is stronger than good,” and the current study suggests that parents should take this into account when interacting with their adult friends. Perhaps “setting a good example” for children is more about knowing how not to behave, rather than knowing how to behave. These results suggest that this may very well be the case.

Future Directions

Although exposure to heightened levels of conflict in any relationship generally has deleterious effects on children it also should be stressed that conflict is a normal part of close relationships (see Laursen & Collins, 1994; Laursen & Hafen, 2010). Parents should discuss this notion with their children, perhaps with particular attention to how conflicts are resolved. This could be a very important direction for future research as well, as adolescents may model the conflict resolution styles of their parents. In addition, future work could examine whether the links between heightened conflict in mothers’ friendships and adolescents’ emotional maladjustment is explained, in part, by their overlapping social networks. It could be that mothers develop friendships with the parents of their children’s friends and that adolescent children find it embarrassing to be thought of as the child of a mother who is frequently involved in conflict. After all, no adolescent wants to be known as the child of the parent who is always “getting into it” with their friends and neighbors. It also may be that associations between mothers’ and youths’ peer relationships extend to other behaviors. Future research could examine, for instance, whether adolescents and their parents display similar levels of aggression (both overt and relational) when interacting with their respective peers. Finally, it is important to note that existing work on the links between parents’ and their adolescents’ friendships has focused primarily on mothers. Future studies could explore whether these links emerge when looking at fathers’ relationships with their friends as well.

“Setting a good example” for children may mean more than what meets the eye. Our research suggest that parents should be aware of how they act with their own adult peers and what it means for the peer relationships and emotional adjustment of their children.   

Gary Glick is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, where he received an M.A. in developmental psychology in 2011. He received his B.S. in psychology and sociology from Drake University in 2006 and then worked as a research assistant in the Center for Social Development and Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Glick’s research concerns the development of social skills and interpersonal styles in close peer relationships (e.g., friendships, romantic relationships).


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.5.4.323

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). Ecology of the family as a context for human development: Research perspectives.Developmental Psychology, 22, 723-742. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.22.6.723

Cicchetti, D. & Toth, S.L.  (1998). The development of depression in children and adolescents. American Psychologist, 53, 221-241. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.53.2.221

Cochran, M. M., & Brassard, J. A. (1979). Child development and personal social networks. Child Development, 50, 601-616. doi:10.2307/1128926

Homel, R., Burns, A., & Goodnow, J. (1987). Parental social networks and child development. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 4, 159-177. doi:10.1177/0265407587042004

Laursen, B., & Collins, W. A. (1994). Interpersonal conflict during adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 197-209.  doi:10.1037//0033-2909.115.2.197 

Laursen, B., & Hafen, C. A. (2010). Future directions in the study of close relationships: Conflict is bad (except when it’s not). Social Development, 19, 858-872. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2009.00546.x

Markiewicz, D., Doyle, A. B., & Brendgen, M. (2001). The quality of adolescents’ friendships: Associations with mothers’ interpersonal relationships, attachment to parents and friends, and prosocial behaviors. Journal of Adolescence, 24, 429-445. doi:10.1006/jado.2001.0374

Rozin, P., & Royzman, E.B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 296-320. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0504_2

Simpkins, S. D., & Parke, R. D. (2001). The relations between parental friendships and children’s friendships: Self-report and observational analysis. Child Development, 72, 569-582. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00297

Uhlendorff, H. (2000). Parents’ and children’s friendship networks. Journal of Family Issues, 21, 191-204. doi:10.1177/019251300021002003

Share this post:

Comments on "Moms Behaving Badly? Conflict in Mothers’ Friendships with Other Adults May Impact Adolescents’ Social and Emotional Adjustment"

Comments 0-0 of 0

Please login to comment