How childhood memories link to adult distress

Father and son surf lesson in Morro Bay, CA by Mike Baird How do you remember your relationship with your parents? Were they supportive and helpful, or critical? Adult memories of the quality of the early parent-child relationship have a lasting impact on well-being, according to research - more evidence that bonding between parents and kids is important over the lifespan. Most of the investigations in the area have focused on the connection between mothers and their children, but a new study in the journal Developmental Psychology looked at the unique role of fathers.

Melanie Mallers and her colleagues asked adults about their relationships with their moms and dads, and then received ratings about stressful experiences and mood over the course of 8 days. Not unexpectedly, recollections of a positive relationship with mothers were linked to lower levels of psychological distress - feelings of sadness, worry, restlessness and worthlessness. Mallers thought that, since mothers are more likely than fathers to be the primary caregivers, they’re also the parents who are there to comfort kids when something is wrong. We talked about attachment on The Family Anatomy Podcast last week - the responsiveness of the mother when kids are in distress is a major factor that allows them to feel secure and has an impact on their general well-being.

Perhaps more surprising is the finding that memories of positive parent-child relationships were also linked to fewer stressful experiences! People who recalled high-quality relationships with their mothers and fathers had fewer bad things happen to them. As strange as this may sound, it makes sense when you take into account the stressful events that occur the most often in people’s lives. We’re not talking about work, school, or home stress - interpersonal arguments and tension make up the majority of daily stressors, and can have a major impact on levels of psychological distress. If most distress arises interpersonally, it makes sense that the parent-child relationship - which I think of as the classroom for future relationships - could affect the number of stressful experiences that occur on a daily basis. Responsive parenting establishes a secure bond and might provide kids with the skills necessary to successfully negotiate interpersonal situations; as adults, these skills might reduce the number of arguments or negative interactions that are experienced from day to day.

But how does the father-child bond contribute to the day-to-day functioning of adults? Memories of high-quality parenting from both parents in childhood might buffer adults from the impact of daily stress, but the father-child relationship was the only one that was linked to reactivity to stress, and only for men. Men who remembered a higher-quality father-son relationship were less likely to react emotionally to daily stress than those who reported a lower quality relationship with their fathers. Mallers and her colleagues proposed that, when fathers are active and involved with their sons, they spend more time in play and competitive activities that might promote the development of problem-solving skills. As adults, these men could be “more resourceful and skillful when presented with a problem” than those whose fathers were less involved.

Do these findings mean that people with negative relationships with their parents will be unable to cope with stress? Of course not - we continue to learn coping strategies as adults, and supportive adult relationships also help us to deal with day-to-day problems. I think results like these should remind parents that their kids’ lasting memories of positive, responsive relationships with their mothers and fathers may have benefits to them as adults. Studies like this one should remind us to pay attention to the message that our behaviour sends to our kids. Even though we’re busy, and tired after long hours at work, as parents, we need to make an effort to respond to our kids when they’re having trouble. We need to interact with them when things are going well, to be involved in their lives, and to talk to them. Improving the quality of our relationships with our kids doesn’t just have benefits for them as adults - it affects our well-being (and theirs) right now.

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.