There’s an interesting article by Angela Fan et al, in Comprehensive Psychiatry, October 28, 2013. It’s titled Association between maternal behavior in infancy and adult mental health: A 30-year prospective study. The data for this investigation were gathered as part of a wider longitudinal study.
Participants in the study were 1,752 babies born between 1960 and 1965. The babies received medical examinations at 4 and 8 months with their mothers present. During the 8-month examination, the mothers’ interactions with the babies were observed and rated on the following dimensions:
(1) mother’s expression of affection;
(2) mother’s verbal evaluation of the child;
(3) mother’s physical handling of the child;
(4) mother’s management of the child during the testing;
(5) mother’s reaction to the child’s needs;
(6) mother’s reaction to the child’s test performance;
(7) mother’s focus of attention during the examination.
These ratings were analyzed statistically, and yielded the two following factors:
- Low attachment, characterized by indifference, rough handling, and criticism of the baby.
- Overly involved, characterized by excessive pride, caution, and affection.
Between 1992 and 1994, when the children had reached the age of about 30 (actual range 27-33), they were contacted and interviewed. They were asked to complete the General Health Questionnaire, and were also asked about their present mental/emotional health status.
The earlier and later data were combined to see if the maternal behavior in the 60’s correlated with the interview data from the adult children in the 90’s.
The primary finding was that:
“Mothers of subjects who reported poor adult mental health were significantly more likely to exhibit ‘Low Attachment’ behaviors at the 8-month exam than mothers of subjects with normal adult mental health (p = 0.040).”
There was no correlation between the maternal “over-involvement” in the 60’s and subsequent mental health of the adult child.
The components of the Low Maternal Attachment factor that were significantly associated with poorer subsequent mental health were:
- Harsh and negative expression
- Made no effort to facilitate the testing
- Inconsiderate in handling the child
The main findings are set out in the table below:
|Low Maternal Attachment Measures||Yes/No||N||%age Poor Mental Health||Relative Risk||P|
|Harsh and negative expression||yes
|Made no effort to facilitate testing||yes
|Inconsiderate in handlng the child||yes
As can be seen from the table, each low-attachment variable is associated with an increased percentage of poor mental health in adulthood (e.g. 21.9% vs 15.4% for the first variable – Harsh and negative expression). The relative risk is the ratio between these two percentages: 21.9 ÷ 15.4 = 1.42, etc…
It is important to note that, as in most research of this kind, the correlation is not perfect. For instance, although 1485 (92%) of the mothers were rated as not harsh and negative during the infant examination, nevertheless 15.4% of their children reported poor mental health in adulthood. And conversely, of the 128 mothers who scored yes on this variable, only 21.9% of their children reported poor subsequent mental health. The point being that low maternal attachment during infancy is only one of the factors that contribute to a person developing “mental health” problems in later life.
The authors concluded that:
“Infants who experience unsupportive maternal behavior at 8 months have an increased risk for developing psychological sequelae later in life.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In recent decades it has become increasingly difficult to discuss the impact of parenting styles on subsequent behavioral/emotional problems in the adult child. Any such attempt has been condemned by psychiatry – or at least some segments of psychiatry – as unwarranted blaming of the parent. For psychiatry, problems of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving are illnesses caused by genetic and/or neurological factors, with little or no causal link to parenting behavior.
But the notion that what we do or don’t do to our children when they are young has a profound effect on how they function in adult life is obvious, and has been obvious throughout recorded history.
Hopefully the publication of the Fan et al study might go some way to bringing this topic back into focus.
In the parenting arena, we all make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are minor. Other times they are more serious. But we will do our species no service if we fail to learn from those mistakes, and if we fail to pass on the lessons learned to future generations.