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Like mother, like daughter: the teen-parent bond effect

As a teenager, the relationships we had with others may not have always been smooth-sailing. But despite a bit of sibling rivalry or arguments with friends, most of us still valued the bonds with those closest to us. And rightly so – a recent study indicates that the bond adolescent girls have with their parents influences the bond they end up having with their own children.

The study, which was conducted by Deakin University and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, examined ‘the extent to which adolescent bonding problems with parents predict next-generation maternal–infant bonding problems at two and 12 months postpartum.’

As lead researcher of the study, Deakin psychology lecturer Dr Jacqui Macdonald has spent years investigating how people’s experiences from childhood through to young adulthood influence their future relationships and mental health during parenthood.

‘These types of studies help to reveal patterns in problem behaviours over time and generations, but they also highlight opportunities for us to intervene to change embedded family patterns of behaviours and interactions that perpetuate problems,’ she says.

How affection builds connection

Research was conducted by assessing the relationships between hundreds of 16-year-old girls and their parents, before reinterviewing the girls over a decade later once they had entered parenthood.

Findings from the study highlight that if the girls received warmth and affection from trusting parents during their teenage years, they were likely to build strong emotional connections with their own infants.

According to Dr Macdonald, the research also ‘indicated that cold or neglectful parenting from fathers was related to the way young women build their relationship with their children in the next generation.’

Similar studies have been conducted before, but not for the same length of time. ‘The difference is that our data were prospective and longitudinal. This means that instead of asking new parents to remember back to when they were children and adolescents, and to recall what their relationships were like over a decade ago, we asked them at the time it mattered.

‘This means our results were not affected by what is known as retrospective recall bias, which is when our memories are coloured by our present-day beliefs and feelings.’

'These types of studies help to reveal patterns in problem behaviours over time and generations, but they also highlight opportunities for us to intervene to change embedded family patterns of behaviours and interactions that perpetuate problems.'

Dr Jacqui Macdonald,
Deakin University

What about boys and fathers?

While the research quite noticeably focuses on the relationships between adolescent girls and their parents, Dr Macdonald explains that there is mounting evidence to prove similar findings in male teen-parent relationship. ‘This is an incredibly important question and one we have recognised here at Deakin through the establishment of the Men and Parenting Pathways (MAPP) research program.’

MAPP involves over 600 men from around Australia, exploring the relationships they had with their mothers and fathers, then assessing the emotional connection they have with their own children, or their desire to be a father.

In terms of romantic partnerships, Dr Macdonald says, ‘There are some very interesting longitudinal findings from the United Kingdom that also show that fathers relationships with adolescent daughters and sons predict how satisfied they are in their relationships with romantic partners when they were 33 years old.’

How patterns can change

If you didn’t have a particularly rosy relationship with your parents as a teenager, it’s not all bad news for how you’ll bond with your own children.

As Dr Macdonald explains, ‘There is some very positive research that shows that we can take charge of our own relationships and the emotional connections that we build with our children, despite what we have experienced in our past.’

Seeking help when you need it is also important. Trying to manage the needs of a child on top of your own emotional requirements can be tough, especially for new parents in unfamiliar territory.

‘Many new parents carry with them anxieties, fears or feelings of anger or sadness and it is difficult to manage those feelings when the baby is crying and sleep has been disrupted, so asking for help is very important. This applies to both mothers and fathers.’

If you’re interested in exploring what influences the human mind, consider studying psychology at Deakin

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Dr Jacqui Macdonald
Dr Jacqui Macdonald

Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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