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Children of more caring, less controlling parents live happier lives

A UCL-led lifelong study of people in England, Scotland and Wales has found that those whose parents were more caring and less controlling during their childhood were likely to be happier and more satisfied throughout their lives.

Care from both mother and father were found to be equally important predictors of participants’ mental wellbeing through to middle age, although paternal care had a greater association with wellbeing in later life (age 60-64).

People whose parents exerted greater psychological control during childhood had significantly lower mental wellbeing during adulthood than those with less controlling parents, with an effect size similar to the recent death of a close friend or relative.

The study monitored the mental wellbeing of participants in the in MRC National Survey of Health and Development between the ages of 13 and 64. The survey tracked 5,362 people since their birth in 1946, of whom 2,800 remain under active follow-up. 3,699 participants had complete wellbeing data at ages 13-15, falling to approximately 2,000 by ages 60-64.

Published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, the research highlights how parenting can have long-term positive impacts on wellbeing that continue through to older age. The results were controlled for confounding variables including parental separation, childhood social class, maternal mental health and participants’ personality traits.

“We found that people whose parents showed warmth and responsiveness had higher life satisfaction and better mental wellbeing throughout early, middle and late adulthood,” explains lead author Dr Mai Stafford from the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health & Ageing at UCL. “By contrast, psychological control was significantly associated with lower life satisfaction and mental wellbeing. Examples of psychological control include not allowing children to make their own decisions, invading their privacy and fostering dependence.”

Psychological control was studied separately to behavioural control, which had no significant effect on mental wellbeing in later life. Behavioural control broadly refers to not letting children have their own way, for example not letting them go out as often as they like.

“We know from other studies that if a child shares a secure emotional attachment with their parents, they are better able to form secure attachments in adult life,” explains Dr Stafford. “Parents also give us a stable base from which to explore the world, while warmth and responsiveness has been shown to promote social and emotional development. By contrast, psychological control can limit a child’s independence and leave them less able to regulate their own behaviour.

“Parents are vitally important to the mental wellbeing of future generations. Policies to reduce economic and other pressures on parents could help them to foster better relationships with their children. Promoting a healthy work-life balance is important as parents need time to nurture relationships with their children.”