Overprotective parenting can backfire, lead to shorter lifespans for kids

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — It can be tough for any parent to let their child do things for themselves for the first time, especially at the start of adolescence. After all, the world can be a scary place and moms and dads just want the best for their kids. New findings out of Brazil, however, are making a very strong case for parents (and especially fathers) worldwide to give their kids a little extra space. It turns out that children who have more freedom have a better chance of living longer.

Researchers report men who had an overprotective father, and generally little autonomy all around, during childhood may be at a 12-percent higher risk of dying before the age of 80. The numbers are even worse among women. For females who had an overprotective father, the risk of dying before the age of 80 can increase by 22 percent.

Notably, however, if a woman was also well cared for by their mother during childhood, that risk may decrease by up to 14 percent. Another eyebrow-raising statistic: the study suggests men who lived with only one parent during childhood had a 179-percent higher risk of dying before their 80th birthday.

These findings come from a new research project involving the analysis of data encompassing 941 participants in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA) who passed away between 2007 and 2018 (445 women and 496 men). This study was a joint effort, conducted by scientists at both the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) in Brazil and University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom. Participants included in this assessment specifically were born in either the 1950s or 1960s.

“The results of our analysis refer to people who would now be elderly, and they wouldn’t necessarily be the same for later generations,” says UFSCar professor of gerontology and study author Tiago Silva Alexandre in a media release.

Overprotective, helicopter parenting is overkill

The research team analyzed responses to various surveys asking about many aspects of participants’ lives, such as family structure, housing, the head of household’s occupation, the presence of infectious diseases, and relationships with parents in childhood and adolescence — especially in reference to care and protection. They focused on identifying any and all correlations among these items, in an effort to estimate the impact of parental relationships on longevity.

“The most interesting thing about our study is that we were able to show in numbers what has been discussed about parenting for many years. Caring and loving relationships with your father and mother during childhood have repercussions for the rest of your life. In particular, our findings show how they affect longevity,” Prof. Alexandre explains. “Public policy should support better conditions during childhood in order for people to enjoy old age.”

Prior studies have indicated that authoritarianism, permissiveness, and negligence in parenting habits can all be negative for a child’s development in their own ways.

“The middle way is best, avoiding both intrusiveness, which stops children from being autonomous, as well negligence or emotional distance. What we call care in the article is a matter of not neglecting but being present and taking care without overprotecting,” adds study first author Aline Fernanda de Souza Canelada, who participated in this work for her master’s research.

In fact, this study is the first ever to investigate how the absence of a parent or deficient parental relationships can promote a shorter lifespan.

“Children need parental care and support, but not intrusion, which deprives the child of autonomy. Research in psychology shows that this kind of relationship is also weak, because the child is afraid of the parent, and leads to various problems, including unhealthy habits, with some studies showing an increased risk of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as mental health difficulties such as stress, which correlates closely with reduced longevity,” Canelada continues.

Do newer generations go through the same thing with their parents?

On a similar note, researchers believe that the observed lower risk for women who were “well cared for” by their moms may have a link with a low level of stress during childhood (and subsequently adulthood). Oddly enough, especially considering the observed detrimental impact of an overbearing father, the quality of paternal care did not appear to matter nearly as much as maternal care.

“We know from studies in the area of psychology that all these phenomena relating to parental relationships affect behavior. There’s a theory that links this to stress. Neglected children may experience higher levels of stress later in life owing to the reverberations of this early neglect, and the probability of disease increases,” Prof. Alexandre notes.

The research team was sure to analyze premature mortality independently from both poor health and age.

“It would be incorrect to attribute the higher risk of early death to a past event without considering the presence of diseases and problems in old age. We therefore controlled for these variables, and analyzed the correlations involving factors present in a subject’s childhood with premature mortality regardless of their health in old age,” Alexandre says.

While the data analyzed for this project pertained to the “baby boom” generation born after World War II, study authors suggest that it is impossible to conclusively state that the experiences of more recent generations has been different.

“We know parents now overprotect their children differently, and this may also have an impact. It’s a different kind of relationship, but it also has its fragilities,” Prof. Alexandre adds, citing the example of children who live with a single parent.

“In this case, cultural and social factors may have had a more significant effect than they do now. Having separated parents was seen differently in the past and could be particularly difficult for male children. We can’t know how this would work out now, given the society we have, but it was very heavy for males born in the 1950s and 1960s, the study shows.”

These findings also suggest a difference between genders regarding the impact on longevity of parental absence or negative parental relationships. While overprotective parents affected the lifespans of female children more than boys, the presence of a mother had a positive effect only on female children. Canelada explains that females tend to be more likely to internalize negative emotions and more frequently suffer from mental disorders. On the other hand, men are more likely to engage in either alcohol use or drug abuse.

“In any event, both factors correlate closely with longevity,” Canelada concludes.

The findings appear in Scientific Reports.

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