Parenting, peer relationships and mental health in the middle years

Content type
Short article

April 2024

This short article provides an overview of the research evidence on the association between parenting, peer relationships and mental health in the middle years. Knowledge of the continuing importance of parent–child relationships during this period can help practitioners support parents and young people to navigate changing relationships, which can help promote positive mental health and healthy peer relationships for young people.


When children are in their middle years or early adolescence (8–14 years, referred to as ‘young people’ in this article) their relationships with peers typically increase in importance. Although young people in this age group may start spending more time with friends and less time with parents (Baxter, 2018; Mitic et al., 2021; Monahan & Booth-LaForce, 2016), positive parenting is critical to supporting positive peer relationships and mental health. The middle years is an important period of physical and mental development (Centre for Adolescent Health, 2020). It is also a time when young people begin to seek independence and privacy from family members and want more autonomy and participation in decisions about their interests, responsibilities and social activities (Centre for Adolescent Health, 2020; Wade, 2019). As young people’s social relationships change, the influence of peers on their mental health and wellbeing increases and the influence of parents may decrease (Baxter, 2018; Mitic et al., 2021; Monahan & Booth-LaForce, 2016). However, despite these changes, parent–child relationships continue to be an important influence on young people’s development (Blair & Perry, 2019; Delgado et al., 2019; Hazel et al., 2014; Jager et al., 2016; Oldfield et al., 2016; Rowe et al., 2015; Spilt et al., 2015). Young people often have multiple, overlapping social relationships with family, friends and peers, all of which can impact their development and mental wellbeing (Cavanaugh & Buehler, 2016; Herres & Kobak, 2015; Nelemans et al., 2018; Oh et al., 2021).

What is the relationship between positive parenting, mental health and peer relationships?

Evidence from research looking at the relationship between parenting and young people’s mental health suggests that, during their middle years, young people who enjoy strong, positive relationships with their parents experience fewer mental health concerns than young people who have less positive parent–child relationships (Cavanaugh & Buehler, 2016; Hazel et al., 2014; Oldfield et al., 2016; Spilt et al. 2015). Studies from the United States have indicated that young people who felt well supported1 by their parents reported fewer depressive symptoms (Hazel et al., 2014) and less loneliness (Cavanaugh & Buehler, 2016) throughout their middle years than young people who felt less supported by their parents. Similarly, a UK study found that young people in their later middle years (average age 13 years) who felt connected to and supported by their parents reported fewer conduct problems and emotional difficulties – and felt less lonely and socially anxious – than other young people of the same age (Oldfield et al., 2016).

Evidence from research looking at both parent–child relationships and friendships indicates that experiencing positive parent–child relationships may also increase the likelihood that young people will have high quality relationships with friends (Blair & Perry, 2019; Oldfield et al., 2016). For example, there is research that suggests that young people who experience secure parental attachment (e.g. feelings of connection to their parents) also experience higher levels of peer attachment (e.g. feelings of connection to their friends) (Oldfield et al., 2016). A US study that followed young people over 3 years similarly found that grade 3 students who experienced higher levels of parental sensitivity (measured as interactions characterised by warmth, supportiveness and respect for the child’s autonomy) developed more prosocial behaviours, such as cooperation (Blair & Perry, 2019). They also reported higher quality friendships and more positive interactions with peers during grade 5 (Blair & Perry, 2019). A US longitudinal study of students from grade 3 to year 9 considered the associations between parent–child relationships, peer relationships and mental health (Hazel et al., 2014). It found that parent–child relationships characterised by high levels of parental support protected against depressive symptoms associated with stressful peer interactions as young people developed from their middle years to later adolescence (Hazel et al., 2014).

What is the influence of negative parenting factors on peer relationships and mental health?

Evidence suggests that parent–child relationships characterised by negative interactions (e.g. control, conflict, lack of autonomy and parental rejection) can be related to poorer mental health outcomes and more peer stressors (Delgado et al., 2019; Herres & Kobak, 2015; Jager et al., 2016; Rowe et al., 2015). For example, US studies with students from Mexican-origin families (Delgado et al. 2019) and students from low-income families (Herres & Kobak, 2015) found that young people who frequently experienced ‘everyday’ conflicts with parents (e.g. disagreements) reported higher levels of depressive symptoms. Research with Australian students aged 9–13 years, found that high levels of parental psychological control (e.g. parents trying to influence how a child feels or thinks about things) were also related to young people experiencing higher levels of depressive symptoms over time (Rowe et al., 2015).

Other studies have found that a child’s feelings of parental rejection (e.g. feeling unwanted, lacking parental attention) can lead to more internalising behaviours (e.g. withdrawal, feeling unhappy) and externalising behaviours (e.g. fighting with others) (Jager et al., 2016), as well as increased symptoms of social anxiety and sensitivity to peer rejection (Rowe et al. 2015). However, there is also some evidence that, for young girls in particular, the negative impacts of ‘everyday’ conflicts on depressive symptoms can be mitigated by frequent positive interactions with parents (e.g. affection, praise and/or sharing things about the child’s day) (Herres & Kobak, 2015). 


During their middle years, young people often start to spend more time with friends and less time with family. However, research evidence shows that parents continue to have an important influence on their children during the middle years, and that young people who experience positive parent–child relationships tend to have both better mental health outcomes and healthier peer relationships. It is therefore important for parents to continue building strong, positive relationships with their children during their middle years, even as peer relationships become more central to a child’s life. 

Practitioners working with families can play a role in supporting parents and young people to navigate changing relationships during the middle years to promote positive mental health and healthy social relationships for young people. Practitioners can provide information to parents about the typical changes to parent–child relationships during the middle years (e.g. increasing importance of friendships to young people, less time spent with parents and the young person’s desire for more autonomy). Practitioners can also encourage parents to have conversations with their children about what supportive and safe peer relationships look like. Refer to Further reading below for more information and Resources for links to some practice-based and parent-related resources.

How this resource was developed

This short article was developed as part of a series of resources for the Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) information exchange. These resources synthesise the findings of a rapid evidence review of research on peer relationships and mental health in the middle years. Consultations with researchers and service providers informed the review and development of resources.

Further reading


  • Bringing Up Great Kids is a parenting program developed by the Australian Childhood Foundation. It includes activities and tools, focused on building positive and nurturing relationships between parents and their children. It is for professionals working with families and/or supporting parents and other adults supporting children. There are also links to resources for parents.
  • Raising Children Network, Pre-teens is an Australian government funded parenting resource produced by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and Parenting Research Centre (PRC). It provides a range of resources with practical tips to help parents maintain and grow positive interactions and communication with their children, including those in their middle years.
  • Engaging parents of children approaching adolescence webinar by Emerging Minds and Mental Health Professionals’ Network identifies strategies for effective conversations between young people and their parents, discusses differences between normal adolescent behaviour and mental health conditions, and looks at current trends in adolescent risk-taking behaviours.


Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth [ARACY]. (2011). “betwixt and between”: A report on ARACY’s Middle Years project. Canberra: ARACY. 

Baxter, J. (2018). Who do adolescents spend their time with? In D. Warren and G. Daraganova (Eds.), Growing Up In Australia – The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, Annual Statistical Report 2017, pp. 25–34, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. 

Blair, B. L., & Perry, N. B. (2019). Parental sensitivity and friendship development: The mediating role of cooperation. Social Development, 28(1), 106–119. 

Cavanaugh, A. M., & Buehler, C. (2016). Adolescent loneliness and social anxiety: The role of multiple sources of support. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(2), 149–170. 

Centre for Adolescent Health. (2020). Promoting wellbeing and learning in the middle years: An opportune time for interventions. Policy Brief Number 1. Parkville, Victoria: Murdoch Children’s Research Institute,

Delgado, M. Y., Rajini, L., Updegraff, K. A., & Umana-Taylor, A. J. (2019). Discrimination, parent-adolescent conflict, and peer intimacy: Examining risk and resilience in Mexican-origin youths’ adjustment trajectories. Child Development, 90(3), 894–910. 

Hazel, N. A., Oppenheimer, C. W., Technow, J. R., Young, J. F., & Hankin, B. L. (2014). Parent relationship quality buffers against the effect of peer stressors on depressive symptoms from middle childhood to adolescence. Developmental Psychology 50(8), 2115–2123. 

Herres, J., & Kobak, R. (2015). The role of parent, teacher, and peer events in maintaining depressive symptoms during early adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43(2), 325–337. 

Jager, J., Mahler, A., An, D., Putnick, D. L., Bornstein, M. H., Lansford, J. E. et al. (2016). Early adolescents’ unique perspectives of maternal and paternal rejection: Examining their across-dyad generalizability and relations with adjustment 1 year later. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(10), 2108–2124. 

Mitic, M., Woodcock, K. A., Amering, M., Krammer, I; Stiehl, K. A. M., Zehetmayer, S. et al. (2021). An integrated model of supportive peer relationships in early adolescence: A systematic review and exploratory meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 589403. 

Monahan, K. C., & Booth-LaForce, C. (2016). Deflected pathways: Becoming aggressive, socially withdrawn, or prosocial with peers during the transition to adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(2), 270–285. 

Nelemans, S. A., Hale, W. W., Branje, S. J. T., Wim, H. J., & Rudolph, K. D. (2018). Individual differences in anxiety trajectories from Grades 2 to 8: Impact of the middle school transition. Development and Psychopathology, 30(4), 1487–1501. 

Oh, W., Bowker, J. C., Santos, A. J., Ribeiro, O., Guedes, M., Freitas, M. et al. (2021). Distinct profiles of relationships with mothers, fathers, and best friends and social-behavioural functioning in early adolescence: A cross-cultural study. Child Development, 92(6), 1154–1170.

Oldfield, J., Humphrey, N., & Hebron, J. (2016). The role of parental and peer attachment relationships and school connectedness in predicting adolescent mental health outcomes. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 21(1), 21–29. 

Rowe, S. L., Gembeck, M. J. Z., Rudolph, J., & Nesdale, D. (2015). A longitudinal study of rejecting and autonomy-restrictive parenting, rejection sensitivity, and socioemotional symptoms in early adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43(6), 1107–1118. 

Spilt, J. L., Van Lier, P. A. C., Branje, S. J. T., Meeus, W., & Koot, H. M. (2015). Discrepancies in perceptions of close relationships of young adolescents: A risk for psychopathology? Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(4), 910–921. 

Wade, C., Seward, A., Almendingen, A., & Robinson, E. (2019). Parenting pre-teens: A pivotal time for children and parents. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. 

1Assessing parental support included questions about whether children felt admired and respected by their parents, how comfortable they were sharing their feelings with their parents (Hazel et al., 2014) and levels of parental care and affection received (Cavanaugh & Buehler, 2016; Split et al., 2015).