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Harvard research shows that parental warmth has a big impact on whether kids flourish or not — as adults.

SALT LAKE CITY — Talk to an adult in midlife who seems to be doing really well, and there's a very good chance that individual will recall growing up with parents who were nurturing and affectionate, the parent-child relationship a warm one.

That's according to a new study from the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University's Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Research scientist Ying Chen and epidemiology professor Tyler VanderWeele, as well as co-author Laura D. Kubzansky in Harvard's Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, used an online survey that gathered information from a large cohort of people over time to determined the degree of parental warmth with which they grew up.

Aaron Thorup, Harvard

Warmth was measured not just by affection, but also nurturing, teaching and communication. For example, the survey's six questions included "How much time and attention did your mother and father give you when you needed it?" "How much did your mother and father understand your problems and worries?" and "How much did your mother and father teach you about life?"

Among those who reported growing up with parental warmth, the study found higher levels of well-being across social, emotional and psychological dimensions, Chen said. The findings are published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

Harvard noted that previous research has looked at parental warmth against the backdrop of individual well-being indicators, like whether it impacted physical or psychological health. The new research is designed to take a more holistic look at the impact of warmth across different dimensions.

Chen told the Deseret News that research often tries to identify risk factors for bad outcomes, instead of the factors that can lead to health and well-being later in life.

" Although there were positive effects of parental warmth on almost all aspects of flourishing later in life, the effects were stronger for some dimensions than others. "
Epidemiology professor Tyler VanderWeele

The results showed that even a moderate increase in parental warmth was associated with positive outcomes in midlife: Those growing up with parental warmth were 18 percent less likely to have depression, 17 percent less likely to use illicit drugs and 21 percent more likely to flourish overall compared to those who experienced less parental warmth. They were also less likely to smoke.

"Although there were positive effects of parental warmth on almost all aspects of flourishing later in life, the effects were stronger for some dimensions than others," VanderWeele told the Deseret News.

"For example, we saw much stronger effects on happiness, positive relationships and self-acceptance than we did on having purpose in life. This perhaps points to the fact that although parental love and warmth are very important in a child's development, there are other important resources, as we have shown in our prior work, such as religious service attendance and education, that also help profoundly shape some of these other well-being outcomes."

The association between warmth and well-being later in life did persist, however, even when the researchers controlled for socioeconomic factors and family religiosity, among others. Chen said they also controlled for family residential characteristics, residential stability and geographic location.

But there are still potential confounding factors, including that the study relies heavily on recall of childhood as seen from midlife. And the researchers didn't have data on parents' mental health or the health status of the child during childhood, Chen said.

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The researchers believe taking a public health approach that improves parenting skills could increase well-being for the broader population. Prior research shows that parenting can be modified, and various parenting programs have been linked already to improvements in health for both parents and their children, Chen said.

The World Health Organization has called for implementing such programs at the population level," she said, "but the progress for doing so has been relatively slow." She hopes the study adds to the evidence of "the importance of parenting beyond childhood well into adulthood."