Not surprisingly, children who have warm, loving relationships with their parents not only tend to have fewer mental health problems during early childhood and adolescence, but are kind, empathetic, helpful and generous – all so-called pro-social habits.
Conversely, children whose early parental relationships are emotionally strained or abusive are less likely to develop pro-social habits. Mind you, child relationships may not always be straightforward if, for example, parents are struggling with financial and work pressures and don’t have much time.
Cambridge University researchers Ioannis Katsantonis and Dr Ros McLellan, both from the Faculty of Education, studied 10,700 people born between 2000 and 2002 from the Millennium Cohort Study, examining their relationship with their parents.
They measured both mental health and pro-sociality at ages five, seven, 11, 14 and 17. Katsantonis, who specialises in psychology and education, said: “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. A big influence appears to be our early relationship with our parents.
“As children, we internalise those aspects of our relationships that are characterised by emotion, care and warmth. This affects our future disposition to be kind and helpful to others.”
A link between mental health symptoms at a younger age and less pro-sociality emerged. Besides being more pro-social, children who had closer relationships with their parents at age three also tended to have fewer symptoms of poor mental health in later childhood and adolescence.
Katsantonis emphasises the importance of cultivating strong early relationships between parents and children, which is already widely seen as critical to supporting children’s healthy development in other areas.
It was also stressed schools’ efforts to foster pro-social behaviours should be part of the curriculum, rather than being implemented in the form of one-off interventions, such as anti-bullying weeks.
“So much of this comes back to parents,” Katsantonis said. “How much time they can spend 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.”