Mental health: is it associated with our genes or our early years surroundings – or both?

In the second in a series of blogs about biosocial research Professor Gordon Harold, University of Sussex, writes about the new research on parenting.

A member of the ESRC Capability Committee, Professor Harold has specific expertise in the area of child and adolescent mental health.

Gordon Harold

On the sleeve of an album by the band Snow Patrol, the following words appear “mums and dads of the world, be patient with your children”.

As an early career researcher at the time (2004 – a long time ago now!), studying the role of the inter-parental relationship on children’s mental health and development, I thought “that’s it, that’s the bottom line message from millions of pounds worth of international research aimed at promoting positive links between family relationship experiences and children’s mental health – ‘parents, be patient with your children’”.

So, why do we continue with research on this topic?If we could only convert this simple message into the day-to-day vernacular of parents, we would have engineered positive change that would address multiple costly and recurring negative outcomes for millions of children, parents and families who live with and experience the conditions of acrimonious inter-parental and parent-child relationships on a daily basis; including poor mental health, academic failure, relationship breakdown, low employability and job loss, criminality, substance misuse, and even suicide.

Reducing the escalating rates of poor mental health and related problems experienced by youth across the UK (and internationally) and interrupting cycles of negative family relationship experiences and poor outcomes across generations (intergenerational transmission) is why we continue with research, with the fundamental objective of employing robust research evidence to inform policy decision making that improves long-term outcomes for children, parents and families.

Helping parents better understand their role as architects of their children’s futures
With this objective in mind, how do we realistically promote the very best opportunities and future ‘life chances’ for today’s generation of children – tomorrow’s generation of parents?

We do this by helping parents better understand their role as architects of their children’s futures, and by putting in their hands the skills, knowledge, and resources that promote confidence for them as parents, that in turn generate rearing experiences for children that lead to positive future outcomes (mental wellbeing, academic attainment, employability, future relationship stability).

Positive parenting has long been recognised as a core building block for children’s life chances in this regard.

There is nothing new to the statement that the quality of parenting that children receive significantly affects their long-term mental health and development.

What is new is knowledge highlighting what may affect a parent’s ability to provide the consistent and responsive caregiving that most professionally-developed parenting-focused intervention and support programmes aspire to deliver.

We now know (and it won’t surprise many who read this) that the quality of the inter-parental relationship (whether parents are married or unmarried) significantly affects children’s mental health, even when parents work to maintain positive parent-child relationship(s).

What do we mean by “the quality of the inter-parental relationship”?
Specifically, the way parents/adults relate to each other when managing everyday issues in their relationship. And, guess what, this goes beyond the well-established link between domestic abuse in the form of physical violence and negative outcomes for children, to contexts that may previously have been regarded as ‘low-risk’ or ‘normal’ for children.

We now recognise that parents can express conflict management attributes that are salient and impactful for children across a silence (low warmth – low hostility) to violence (low warmth – high hostility) continuum.

Parents’ treatment of each other affects children’s mental health
Helping parents understand that it is not just how they behave toward their children, but how they behave toward each other that affects children’s mental health, is the next step in terms of evidence-led practice and policy decision making aimed at promoting improved outcomes for children, parents and families.

New research linked to this objective highlights that the specific understanding and perceptions that children assign to how parents (or caregivers) express and manage day-to-day arguments or matters that require everyday negotiation and discussion (eg household finances, helping children with homework or other general issues) significantly affects their emotional and behavioural development and long-term mental health.

Specifically, children who perceive their parents to engage in frequent, intense, child-related and poorly-resolved conflicts experience significantly greater emotional and behavioural problems (across all ages) compared to those who perceive parents to express and manage conflicts without animosity, concerning topics unrelated to the child and who successfully resolve their conflicts (particularly when conflicts relate to the child).

Further, new research highlights that when conflict between parents is high or occurs frequently, the quality of parenting that children receive is reduced (even when parenting support is provided).

I say this research is new, it is not really new. This specific research has been around for a long time (from as far back as 1990).

What is new, is research that consolidates the messages outlined above relative to multiple competing explanations linking the ‘hypothesis’ that early nurturing experiences significantly affect long-term outcomes for children.

The other arguments aside from the significant effects of nurturing
What are some of these competing explanations?

  • Common genetic factors passed on from parents to children explain more about children’s emotional and behavioural development than the rearing environments they experience.
  • As long as children receive consistent and positive parenting experiences, irrespective of problems at the wider family level (eg a negative inter-parental relationship), improved long-term outcomes are promoted.
  • Supporting the mother-child relationship early in a child’s life (the Attachment model) is sufficient to promote and sustain long-term positive outcomes for children, irrespective of the quality of the inter-parental or father-child relationships.

New UK-based research (in part supported by the ESRC) allows each of these challenges to be refuted, promoting the opportunity to ‘re-boot’ policy decision making in this area.

When children and rearing parents are not related
Specifically, research that employs novel research designs where children and rearing parents are not genetically related (for example, where children have been conceived through in vitro fertilisation or where they have been adopted at birth; see Harold et al., 2013), facilitates opportunity to examine family relationship influences on children’s long-term mental health and development where rearing parents and children are not genetically related (therefore they do not share common genes, allowing conclusions regarding the role of the rearing environment not possible using more traditional research-design approaches where parents and children are genetically related).

Based on published studies employing these novel and unique ‘natural experimental’ research designs, and other international intervention-based studies, we can now conclude with greater evidence-based confidence that:

  • Children are affected by the rearing experiences they receive whether they are genetically related to their parents, or not.
  • Children who witness ongoing and acrimonious levels of inter-parental conflict (whether parents are married or not) experience negative outcomes, even when parenting practices are supported.
  • While supporting mothers in the role of parent/caregiver is linked to positive outcomes for children, new research highlights that (a) supporting mothers and fathers in their role as parents and as ‘co-parents’ leads to more positive outcomes for children, and (b) inter-parental conflict can adversely affect both the mother–child and father–child relationships, with evidence suggesting that the association between inter-parental conflict and negative parenting practices may be stronger for the father–child relationship compared to the mother–child relationship.

Research which is impacting on UK policy
Based on these findings, and with the objective of harnessing this latest research to improve outcomes for parents, children and families in the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) commissioned the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) and the University of Sussex (myself and Dr Ruth Sellers, an ESRC Future Research Leader Fellow) to provide an evidence review of ‘What Works’ in relation to supporting the inter-parental relationship with the objective of promoting positive outcomes for children.

This review was launched in April 2016, by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Rt Hon Stephen Crabb MP, and is serving as the basis for a sector-wide review of family support programmes aimed at improving outcomes for children across England and Wales (commencing June 2016), that I am leading together with the EIF.

Equipping practitioners and professionals working with parents and children with new knowledge
The core objective of this review is to equip practitioners and professionals working with parents and children with new knowledge and resources that inform parents of the importance of the interplay between the inter-parental, parenting and co-parenting roles in relation to long-term outcomes for children, and that support parents in implementing this new knowledge.

Outcome: Parental rearing experiences significantly affects children’s long-term mental health, development and future life chances
What this new research allows us to conclude with greater confidence is that the rearing experiences that parents provide (whether parents are living together or not, whether they are biologically related or not eg adoption, foster-care, step-parent households) significantly affects children’s long-term mental health, development and future life chances.

The real opportunity is to help parents realise and understand that how they relate to each other and behave in their own relationships not only affects their capacity to deliver consistent and positive parenting, but also directly affects their children.

Fundamentally, if we are to promote more patient parenting and associated improved outcomes for children, we must first recognise and support the quality of ‘partnership’ that mothers, fathers and couples experience and that they represent to their children.

So, mums and dads of the world, be patient with your partners –  you stand a much better chance of being patient with your children!

One thought on “Mental health: is it associated with our genes or our early years surroundings – or both?

  1. Pingback: Your top 10 ESRC blogs from 2016 | ESRC blog

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