Happiness and life satisfaction may come from having parents who are caring and less psychologically controlling when growing up, according to a new study.

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Having parents who are caring and less controlling in childhood may have a beneficial impact on mental wellbeing in adulthood.

A new lifelong study from University College London (UCL) in the UK, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, has found a number of important predictors of mental wellbeing in adulthood based on their childhood environment.

The researchers assessed 5,362 British people aged 13-64 – forming a representative population for survey purposes – who were part of the Medical Research Council (MRC) National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD). This unique national survey has been tracking people since their birth in March 1946.

Of the study participants, 2,800 are under active follow-up, while complete wellbeing data was gathered for 3,699 participants at the ages of 13-15, reducing to around 2,000 participants by the ages of 60-64.

Using a 25-item questionnaire, the research team aimed to measure three different concepts of care.

To assess parental bonding, study participants were asked to agree with statements such as “appeared to understand my problems and worries.” Phrases such as “tried to control everything I did” were designed to assess psychological control, while disagreeing with statements such as “let me go out as often as I wanted” aimed to measure behavioral control.

Adults completed the questionnaires retrospectively to describe how they remembered their parents’ attitudes and behaviors before they were 16 years old.

The study controlled for confounding factors such as parental separation, childhood social class, maternal mental health and participants’ personality traits.

The effect on individuals with parents who exerted greater psychological control during childhood was found to lower their mental wellbeing during adulthood significantly – particularly during the ages of 60-64. This effect was so pronounced that the authors of the study liken it to the recent death of a close friend or relative.

Dr. Mai Stafford, reader in social epidemiology in the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health & Ageing at UCL, explains: “We found that people whose parents showed warmth and responsiveness had higher life satisfaction and better mental wellbeing throughout early, middle and late adulthood.”

Examples of psychological control which can limit a child’s independence and leave them less able to regulate their behavior include not allowing them to make their own decisions, not letting them have their own way, invading their privacy and fostering dependence (rather than independence).

From other studies, the research team also know that that if a child shares a secure emotional attachment with their parents, they are better able to form secure attachments in adult life.

Dr. Stafford says:

Parents […] 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 behavior.”

Dr. Stafford adds that “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.”

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a new study that showed how important it is for parents to avoid ‘overvaluing’ your child to prevent narcissism and the value of parents showing warmth to develop high self-esteem.

Written by Jonathan Vernon