CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — People often say we only get one chance to make a good first impression. Now, researchers from the University of Cambridge are suggesting that saying may ring especially true when it comes to parents and their children. Their study finds that kids who reported having a loving, strong bond with their parents around age three tended to be more kind, empathetic, and generous by adolescence.
In other words, researchers say parents should do their best to cultivate a meaningful, close relationship with their children as early as possible during their lives together. While the notion that fun times spent with mom or dad at age two or three could lead to more kind, prosocial behaviors years later may seem farfetched at first, researchers explain that parent-child relationships and closeness are incredibly important to an adolescent’s development. That process begins pretty much as soon as the family’s new addition comes home from the hospital. It’s never too early to start spreading the love in your household.
To reach these conclusions, the research team analyzed a massive dataset encompassing over 10,000 people born between 2000 and 2002. Originally setting out to examine the complex factors at play between early relationships with parents, prosociality, and mental health, researchers call their finished study one of the first ever to assess how these characteristics interact over long periods spanning both childhood and adolescence.
Study authors eventually concluded people who experienced warm and loving relationships with their parents at age three not only tended to have fewer mental health problems during early childhood and adolescence, but also exhibited better prosocial tendencies, which refers to socially desirable behaviors that help others (kindness, generosity, empathy, volunteering, helpfulness).
While the noted correlation between parent-child relationships and later prosociality must be validated by additional research projects, this work certainly suggests a compelling and sizable association is at play here. On average, researchers say that for every standard unit above “normal” levels that a child’s closeness with their parents was higher around age three, their prosociality was higher by 0.24 of a standard unit by the time adolescence set in.
On the other hand, kids who reported having relationships with their parents that were emotionally strained or abusive were less likely to become prosocial over time. The research team adds this finding reinforces the argument that new targeted policies and support for young families within which establishing close parent-child relationships may not always be straightforward can help tremendously. For example, if mom and dad are struggling to pay the bills and just don’t have the time to form close bonds with their kids.
The project also investigated how far mental health and prosocial behavior are fixed “traits” in young people, as well as how far they may fluctuate according to circumstances like changes at school or in personal relationships. This was accomplished by measuring for mental health and prosociality at ages five, seven, 11, 14, and 17 as a way to develop a comprehensive picture of the dynamics shaping these characteristics, as well as how they interact.
The project was undertaken and led by Ioannis Katsantonis and Dr. Ros McLellan, both from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.
“Our analysis showed that after a certain age, we tend to be mentally well, or mentally unwell, and have a reasonably fixed level of resilience. Prosociality varies more and for longer, depending on our environment. A big influence appears to be our early relationship with our parents. As children, we internalize those aspects of our relationships with parents that are characterized by emotion, care and warmth. This affects our future disposition to be kind and helpful towards others,” says Ioannis Katsantonis, the lead author and a doctoral researcher specializing in psychology and education at Cambridge, in a university release.
All in all, this project used data encompassing 10,700 participants in the Millennium Cohort Study, a project that monitored the development of a large group of people born in the U.K. between 2000 and 2002. That project included survey-based information about participants’ prosociality, “internalizing” mental health symptoms (depression, anxiety) and “externalizing” symptoms (aggression).
Additional collected survey data also added extra information pertaining to how far the participants’ relationships with their parents at age three were characterized by “maltreatment” (physical and verbal abuse); emotional conflict; and “closeness” (warmth, security, care). Additional potentially confounding factors (ethnic background, socio-economics) were also considered by the team.
Next, study authors made use of a complex form of statistical analysis known as latent state-trait-occasion modeling as a means of understanding how far participants’ mental health symptoms and prosocial inclinations appeared to be expressing fixed personality “traits” at each personal developmental stage. This approach allowed researchers to gauge, for instance, how much one child who behaved anxiously when surveyed was responding to a particular experience or set of circumstances, and how much they’re just a naturally anxious child.
The team did not see evidence of a link connecting mental health and prosociality. Kids who displayed higher than average externalizing mental health symptoms early in life showed less prosociality than usual later on in adolescence. More specifically, for each standard unit increase above normal that a child displayed externalizing mental health problems at age seven, their prosociality typically fell by 0.11 of a unit by age 11.
However, no clear evidence emerged pointing to the reverse being true. While kids with more than average prosociality scores generally scored well for mental health at any given point in the study, researchers say this does not mean their mental health improved as they got older. Based on this finding, study authors suggest that schools’ efforts to foster prosocial behaviors may be more successful if integrated into the curriculum in a sustained way as opposed to being developed as one-off interventions, like anti-bullying weeks.
In conclusion, the study authors say this work highlights the importance of parents building a strong loving relationship with their kids as early as possible.
“So much of this comes back to parents,” Katsantonis concludes. “How much they can spend time with their children and respond to their needs and emotions early in life matters enormously.”
“Some may need help learning how to do that, but we should not underestimate the importance of simply giving them time. Closeness only develops with time, and for parents who are living or working in stressful and constrained circumstances, there often isn’t enough. Policies which address that, at any level, will have many benefits, including enhancing children’s mental resilience and their capacity to act positively towards others later in life.”
The study is published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development.
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