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Poorer quality relationship with parents in childhood consistently associated with poorer adult mental wellbeing, new research finds

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New research using data from three British birth cohorts shows poorer quality parent-child relationships and poor parental mental health in childhood are linked to lower levels of mental wellbeing in adulthood.

Across all three cohorts, poorer quality parent-child relationships and poor parental mental health in childhood emerged as being consistently and strongly associated with poorer adult mental wellbeing at midlife. Childhood socioeconomic conditions were also associated with adult mental wellbeing, but to a lesser extent than parent-child relationships and parental mental health. These findings were consistent across different generations from the 1940s to the 1970s, who would have experienced different childhood environments – those growing up in the 1940s experienced poorer housing, whilst those in the 1970s were more likely to experience parental divorce.

The authors of the paper, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, used data from three British birth cohort studies consisting of people born in 1946, 1958 and 1970. They looked at prospectively collected measures of the childhood environment up to the age of 16 and their association with midlife adult mental wellbeing, and whether similar associations were replicated across different generations. Measures of the childhood environment, which were harmonised across studies, captured socioeconomic circumstances, child rearing and parenting practices, family instability, and parental physical and mental health.

Previous studies have generally focussed on one element of the childhood environment, rather than considering multiple domains. Investigating multiple domains is important as factors within childhood tend to co-occur

Dr Natasha Wood, researcher at Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, and one of the authors of the paper, said:

“Experiencing a childhood environment which comprised positive parent child-relationships and having parents with good mental health was shown to be beneficial for mental wellbeing in adulthood. These factors were important despite socioeconomic conditions experienced during childhood. Given that we see consistency in these factors across all generations, parent-child relationships and parental mental health in childhood would also be important for future generations’ mental wellbeing.”

Conclusions from this research suggest that interventions in early childhood aimed at providing parental support and reducing childhood poverty could enhance mental wellbeing across the life course.

This paper is a result of a research project that was funded by CLOSER looking at childhood adversity and mental wellbeing.

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