Numerous studies have shown that strong family bonds lower the chances of poor outcomes in children such as risky behaviors and drug abuse, but this study revealed that there may be positive outcomes as well, said lead study author Dr. Robert Whitaker, director of the Columbia-Bassett research program at Columbia University in New York City.
“What was different about this study was it showed that family connection is associated with thriving and not just surviving or avoiding harm,” Whitaker said.
Researchers surveyed over 37,000 children in 26 countries and found adolescents who reported having a great bond with their family also reported that they were succeeding in life.
Family connection was determined by a mean score of five categories: care, support, safety, respect, and participation. For each subject, participants were given a statement and asked to assess how much they agreed with it, scoring from zero (do not agree) to 4 (strongly agree). For example, to measure care, children were asked how much they agreed with the statement, “I feel safe at home.”
The essence of family connection is children feeling that they are accepted and nurtured at home, which allows them to learn what their strengths and weaknesses are in a safe environment as they are building their identity, Whitaker said.
Flourishing was determined by a mean score of six categories: self-acceptance, purpose in life, positive relations with others, personal growth, environmental mastery and autonomy. The survey structure was the same as that for family connections, except the ranking system ranged from zero to 10.
When it comes to flourishing, it’s about kids accepting their strengths and weaknesses and then being able to use their strengths to find their purpose in life, he said.
Children can thrive, not just survive
Children with the greatest level of family connection were over 49% more likely to flourish compared with those with the lowest level of family connection, according to the study.
It’s not enough to not have depression and anxiety to live a good life, according to Elaine Reese, a professor of psychology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, who was not involved in the study.
“A good life entails having a sense of purpose and meaning, which is what the flourishing scale in this study measured,” she said.
The highest scores in both family connection and flourishing came from children who said they live with both parents, have enough food or never have their family worrying about finances.
Researchers then controlled the data for families’ poverty levels, including financial circumstances and food insecurity, to remove the effect they may have had on the numbers. After controlling for these factors, the strength of family connections still impacted how much children flourished.
How to strengthen family connection
Adults have a very powerful influence on the emotional climate in the home, so it’s important to create a space where children feel seen and heard, Whitaker said.
A great opportunity to strengthen family bonds is around the dinner table, he said. Adults should create an environment where children feel comfortable speaking freely. While they are talking, grown-ups should show that they have a genuine interest in what their children are saying and try to suspend judgment, Whitaker added.
Adults do not need to make grand gestures to bond with their children, Reese said. Having meaningful conversations is more important for your connection than taking them on expensive trips, she said.
Silence is also another powerful form of communication, he said.
Children and parents or their caregivers spending time together in silence or even running an errand or doing chores can create a connection, according to Whitaker.
“We don’t necessarily need to fill those moments with chatter or the radio,” he said.
Other adults may impact how children flourish
In the future, Whitaker said he wants to research the impact community members like teachers have on children.
“We suspect that sense of connection to non-parental adults probably adds to the likelihood that teen will flourish,” he said in an email.
Outside relationships are important and do impact children, especially during infancy and early childhood, said Kelly-Ann Allen, an educational and developmental psychologist and senior lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. She was not involved in the study.
“If children experience healthy trusting relationships early, they are more likely to establish healthy trusting relationships as adults,” she said.