Children's Health

Mothers and friends play role in shaping the self-esteem of adolescents

A new longitudinal study takes a deep dive into adolescent self-esteem and the role that parents – specifically mothers – and friends play in shaping how youth feel about themselves. Confirming results from previous studies, youth who lack support from parents and friends have lower self-esteem than those with support from one or both. Contrary to popular belief, however, for most adolescents, support from friends cannot overcome the drag on self-esteem caused by the absence of support from parents.

A replication study led by Florida Atlantic University’s Brett Laursen, Ph.D., looked at reports from four teams of investigators who studied more than 2,000 young adolescents (ages 10 to 14) from Canada and the United States. The investigators sought to test two claims: that close relationships with friends and parents boost adolescent self-esteem; and that friends can help adolescents compensate from or overcome poor-quality relationships with parents.

Results of the study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, showed that support from mothers and support from friends were each uniquely associated with concurrent global self-worth, a finding that emerged in each of the samples studied. But there was no evidence for the claim that positive relationships with friends buffer against diminished self-esteem arising from poor-quality relationships with parents.

In several respects, the findings run against popular conceptions about the role of friends and mothers in adolescent self-esteem We looked at youth from four studies, in four different samples, from four different locations in North America. Not only did we fail to find evidence that friends protected against the absence of supportive parents, we also found that the antecedent links from relationship quality to subsequent self-esteem was weak, casting doubt on strong causal claims that close relationships with family and friends drive changes in adolescent self-worth.”

Brett Laursen, Study Senior Author and Professor of Psychology, Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, Florida Atlantic University

Laursen adds, “After reviewing the data from the four samples separately and collectively, only family cohesion predicted increases in adolescent self-esteem longitudinally. Those youth who enjoyed the benefits of a strong, close-knit family were mostly likely to see gains in self-esteem across the early teen years.”

Of course, the findings do not imply that parents or friends are irrelevant to adolescent well-being. Both contribute, directly and indirectly, to happiness and success in school as well as to the development of adjustment problems and risk-taking behavior. The origins of adolescent self-esteem are complex, however, and it appears that close relationships are but a small contributor to adolescent self-views.

The authors caution that most of the evidence concerns relations with mothers and that less is known about fathers, specifically whether their contributions are interchangeable with those of mothers or supplement them, and whether friend support mitigates the adverse consequences of poor-quality father–child relationships.

Journal reference:

Laursen, B., et al. (2021) Revisiting the hypothesis that friends buffer against diminished self-esteem arising from poor quality parent–adolescent relationships: A replication study. Developmental Psychology.

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