Many studies have found that the way parents interact with their children matters as they lay the foundation for what close relationships look and feel like. Positive parental bonds help children thrive when it comes to early cognitive development, emotional balance, and thought maturation. This type of connection can even help kids overcome adversity growing up. But a healthy bond with parents isn’t just vital to early development. A study published last month in JAMA Network Open found that parent-adolescent bonding has health implications later in life: People who reported having better relationships with their parents as teens generally had better overall health as adults.
This study, which was conducted by researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), adds to the mountain of evidence about the impacts of positive parental/child relationships on our lives. It found that the participants who reported higher levels of communication, warmth, academic expectations, time spent together, relationship or communication satisfaction, and inductive discipline (i.e. positive reinforcement and natural consequences) with both their parents also reported having much higher levels of general health than those who rated these relationships low.
The study was conducted over a period of 14 years and involved more than 15,000 adults. They filled out questionnaires about their relationships with their primary caregivers when they were between 12 and 17 years-old. When these same people were between 24 and 32 years old, they self-reported their current levels of depression, optimism, stress, substance abuse, nicotine dependence, and other measures of general health. The study also found lower levels of unexpected pregnancy among the people who reported positive relationships with their parents.
You may be thinking back to your teenage years and shuddering in embarrassment, but you did a lot of growing during that period. The study examined this chapter of life because “there is stunning physical growth, remarkable brain maturation, and so many tremendous new opportunities for learning about the world and how to function in it” when people are between 10 and 20 years-old, says Carol A. Ford, MD, chief of the Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine at CHOP and lead researcher of the study. “Young people are developing emotional maturity and making decisions and choices about behaviors that can influence lifelong trajectories of health,” she adds.
Dr. Ford and her colleagues looked at people who functioned in parental roles as well, not just mothers and fathers. (Dr. Ford says 75 percent of the participants were at home with their biological parents and 25 percent were not.) What mattered wasn’t necessarily the biological relationships, but rather the consistent love, support, role modeling, and guidance people received (or didn’t) from the people who fulfilled the roles of their primary caregivers. These “strong relationships with grandparents, adoptive parents, or other adults functioning as parents in the home are important and helpful,” Dr. Ford adds.
But what if healthy parent-adolescent bonding wasn’t your reality?
If you grew up in a home with tough family dynamics and a difficult relationship with your parents, don’t fret because Dr. Ford says that the findings do not in any way mean that people with poor parental relationships are destined for poor health outcomes down the road—just that teens who didn’t have these positive bonds require extra support.
Dr. Ford points out that community interventions and the presence of other adults like extended family members or other trusted adults in the community like schools, after-school programs, sports, and churches can also positively impact teens and their health in real time, as well as in the future.
“Sometimes there are other adults who really step up to help, and it is important to appreciate their roles,” she says. She also points out that adults who have been able to “successfully navigate challenging times during their adolescence are sometimes exceptionally understanding of adolescent hardships and choose to help other young people on their journey.”
“Even those who experience significant childhood trauma can—with appropriate support and perseverance—create new patterns that lead to better mental and physical health in the short and long-term.”—Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
This extra support can also help adults, too. With work and support, it’s possible to mend wounds from difficult family dynamics. Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear, focuses much of her work on healing from past traumas, including difficult childhoods, and says that she’s seen many people do so.
“Although negative childhood environments and a lack of connective parenting certainly take their toll, humans have the capacity to be incredibly resilient,” Dr. Manly says. “Even those who experience significant childhood trauma can—with appropriate support and perseverance—create new patterns that lead to better mental and physical health in the short and long-term.” She says that it’s possible to create positive patterns and behaviors in the brain that promote better overall health, physically and mentally, and recommends working with a therapist to begin.
How to get support to heal from tough family dynamics as an adult
Healing as an adult from trauma you experienced as an adolescent or teen takes work, but is possible with help and guidance. Kara Kays, LMFT, regional clinic director at Thriveworks, emphasizes that while it’s important to think about the past, what really matters is focusing on the future. “We are the creators of our own experience, so if you’re looking at childhood and adolescence what’s really important for decreasing the risk now is taking care of yourself,” she says.
What does that look like? Therapy, including inner child and inner teen work, can help. According to Dr. Manly, parenting-related childhood wounds that are “mild or moderate” can heal over time through a combination of healing processes like journaling, mindful self-reflection, and forgiveness. She also says reading self-help books can help, too. Kays suggests working on self-awareness and emotional regulation skills to decrease the risk of childhood trauma haunting you later in your life.
However, Dr. Manly says psychotherapy is a better fit for those working through deeper, more-intense trauma related to their childhoods. “In my clinical practice, I find that an attachment-based method blended with CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) can work wonders for healing childhood wounds,” she says. “As an EMDR clinician, I also find this a very helpful approach when trauma has occurred.”
If you grew up with difficult family dynamics, Dr. Manly emphasizes that it’s not your fault and that you should not blame yourself because the kind of home you grew up in is beyond your control. However, you do have some degree of control of the future. “We can’t change the past, but we certainly have the power to change our inner and outer worlds to foster health, well-being, and joy,” she says.