A recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development has shed light on the importance of nurturing warm and close relationships between parents and children in their early years. The research, conducted with over 10,000 children, suggests that such relationships not only foster greater prosocial behavior in kids but also protect them against mental health difficulties as they grow.
Parenting and child development have been the subject of extensive research for many years, with scientists trying to understand how various factors influence children’s well-being. In this context, the current study sought to investigate the complex interplay between mental health symptoms, prosocial behavior, and parent-child interactions from early childhood through adolescence.
“This study was inspired by the changing nature of the relationship between mental health and prosociality and the role of parent-child interactions in this association,” said study author Ioannis Katsantonis, a researcher and PhD candidate in Psychology of Education at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.
“Although we know that having a warm and consistent parenting style is predictive of better child adjustment, there is little evidence on whether the quality of the parent-child relationships in early childhood is predictive of the stable traits of mental health and prosociality from early childhood to late adolescence after removing any situational/contextual influences (e.g., income, or intergenerational transmission of mental health). Particularly, there was less evidence on how parent-child interactions predicted whether children will build a ‘personality’ trait of being kind, helpful, and compassionate.”
The study involved a sample of 10,703 children, with an equal distribution of boys and girls. These children were part of the Millennium Cohort Study, a comprehensive ongoing research project in the UK that tracks the development of children born in the early 21st century. The researchers collected data from interviews conducted when the children were aged 5, 7, 11, 14, and 17.
To measure mental health symptoms, the parents reported their children’s scores on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). This questionnaire consists of various scales, each containing five items related to emotional symptoms, conduct, hyperactivity, peer problems, and prosociality. Parents rated each item on a 3-point scale, with scores ranging from “not true” to “certainly true.”
Additionally, when the children were 5 years old, primary caregivers were asked to complete the Straus Tactics Conflict scale, which assesses harsh disciplinary practices and indexes physical and psychological maltreatment. This scale included items such as “Smack [the child],” with response options ranging from “never” to “daily.”
During the same period, both primary and secondary caregivers completed the Parent-Child Relationship short form Pianta scale, which provided insights into the quality of the parent-child relationship. This scale included items such as “[the child] openly shares his or her feelings and experiences with me” for closeness and “[the child] easily becomes angry with me” for conflict.
The researchers found that both internalizing (e.g., anxiety, depression) and externalizing (e.g., aggression, hyperactivity) mental health symptoms tended to be stable and trait-like throughout adolescence, indicating that children and adolescents with consistent mental health issues tend to continue experiencing them over time. Prosociality, on the other hand, was initially more influenced by situational factors during childhood but became more stable (trait-like) in early adolescence. This suggests that prosocial behavior becomes more refined and consistent as children grow older.
Importantly, high-quality parent-child interactions, characterized by increased closeness and reduced conflict, were identified as significant protective factors against mental health symptoms while fostering increased prosociality. Physical and psychological maltreatment in parent-child relationships had detrimental effects, leading to greater mental health difficulties and reduced prosociality in children.
“Taking time to build warm, close, comforting and understanding relationships between parents and children in early childhood tends to predict children’s resilience against mental health difficulties and increases their levels of prosociality throughout childhood and adolescence,” Katsantonis told PsyPost. “Fractious, angry and manipulative relationships will have the opposite effect. If parents also take steps to prevent aggressive behaviour and conduct problems early, they could also be supporting their child’s future prosociality (the chances of them acting kindly and considerately).”
There was a strong negative correlation between children who consistently displayed high prosociality and low internalizing and externalizing mental health symptoms. In simpler terms, children who consistently demonstrated kindness and helpfulness from an early age were more likely to have better mental health throughout their development.
Surprisingly, however, the study did not find strong evidence that high prosociality in children strongly predicted lower mental health symptoms over time. While children with high prosociality scores tended to display fewer mental health symptoms in cross-sectional observations, this effect did not hold longitudinally. In other words, children with greater than average prosociality generally had better mental health at any single given point in time, but this did not mean their mental health improved as they got older.
“Unfortunately, greater than average prosociality was not a salient predictor of lower than usual mental health symptoms,” Katsantonis explained. “On the other hand, if children build a ‘trait,’ that is, a habit, of being prosocial over time, then children usually have stable low levels of mental health symptoms.”
The researchers controlled for several covariates to account for potential confounding bias. These included the child’s ethnicity, socioeconomic status based on family income, and family mental health problems measured using the Kessler 6 (K6) scale. The K6 scale assesses general mental health symptoms and was administered to both primary and secondary caregivers. But, as with all research, the study includes some caveats.
“A major caveat was that we did not have any data on parent-child relationships over time, which limited what kind of conclusions we could reach regarding the changing nature of the association between parent-child relationships and prosociality and mental health,” Katsantonis told PsyPost. “The next step for me is to examine how the parent-child relationship develops over time and how this development might be linked with children’s developing prosociality in the early years. This could answer important practical and theoretical questions about how we can help families more and when exactly families might need more support.”
“Similarly, some parents may be stressed out that they are not doing ‘enough’ to form a close bond or there may be other factors like work, finances etc they feel are preventing them from achieving this,” Katsantonis added. “My message be to them would be the following: It is completely natural to feel overwhelmed at times, especially when juggling multiple responsibilities such as work, finances, and parenting. Remember, forming a close bond with your child does not always mean engaging in elaborate activities or dedicating vast amounts of uninterrupted time.”
“Often, it is the small moments — the spontaneous hugs, the bedtime stories, the shared laughter over a silly joke — that foster deep connections. Every parent’s journey is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a bond with your child. What matters most is your genuine love, presence, and the intention behind each interaction.”
The study, “The role of parent–child interactions in the association between mental health and prosocial behavior: Evidence from early childhood to late adolescence“, was authored by Ioannis Katsantonis and Ros McLellan.