Feature

Do you know how to keep your cool when you’re stuck in traffic? If so, you might have Dad to thank for your equanimity, according to research presented during an APA Annual Convention symposium on the effects of social relationships on well-being.

A study in press in Developmental Psychology suggests that a strong father-son bond forged during childhood may help men deal with everyday stress later in life.

In the study, led by Melanie Mallers, PhD, a psychology professor at California State University–Fullerton, 912 men and women answered questions about the quality of their childhood relationships with each parent, as well as stressful events they experienced and their emotional responses over eight consecutive evenings. The team found that men who reported a good relationship with their fathers during childhood were less affected by stressful events than those who had poor father-son relationships.

One explanation for this effect is that fathers tend to interact with their children — particularly their sons — through rough-and-tumble play, which stimulates and challenges children and can even improve problem-solving skills, Mallers said. These findings “provide evidence that early parent-child-relationship quality can have implications for daily health later in life,” she added.

The parent-child emotional link isn’t a one-way street, however. In other research presented at the symposium, psychologists explored how children can affect their parents’ mental health, even after they have entered adulthood. In a study led by Karen Fingerman, PhD, a psychology professor at Purdue University, 633 Philadelphia-area parents rated their grown children’s achievements in education, career and family life compared with other adults of the same age. The parents also answered questions about their own well-being and whether their children had experienced any of 10 lifestyle and behavioral problems, including trouble with the law, drinking or drug problems, and serious health concerns.

The researchers found that parents who had more than one highly successful adult child reported better well-being, but having even one problematic offspring hurt parents’ mental health. Having only one successful child, however, was not associated with better well-being.

Fingerman is now studying parental support of college students in a cross-national collaboration. She and her collaborators in Korea, China and Germany will be surveying college students this fall to learn more about cultural factors that shape relationships between young adults and their middle-aged parents.

The session was sponsored by APA Div. 20 (Adult Development and Aging).


Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.