There is little question that parent and child relationships are important for child development, but researchers are learning more about how individual aspects of these relationships come into play. Recently, a study revealed that kids who feel rejected by their fathers may struggle with social anxiety and feelings of loneliness. As parents are the foundation of their children's first relationship, every subsequent relationship can be influenced by it, either positively or negatively.
Researchers at Penn State examined how parental rejection and family well-being influence children's relationships. The study was led by Hio Wa "Grace" Mak, a doctoral student of human development and family studies at the university, and looked at changes in adolescents' social anxiety, friendships, and feelings of loneliness. The study found that paternal rejection in particular had a devastating effect on child psychology. Adolescents whose fathers rejected them tended to experience more social anxiety later on in life, which led to feelings of loneliness. Mak told Science Daily:
We found that father rejection predicted increases in adolescents' social anxiety, even when we controlled for social anxiety at an earlier time. In turn, this predicted increases in loneliness later on. This suggests that fathers' rejecting attitudes toward their adolescent children may make them more nervous about approaching social situations, which in turn is related to more social isolation and feelings of loneliness.
The study, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, examined 687 families that were made up of a mother, a father, and one adolescent child. Researchers checked in with families at three points — sixth, seventh, and eighth grade — allowing them to monitor development over time. They asked parents about their feelings of love, distrust, and dissatisfaction with their child to determine mother and father rejection.
The surveys also included questions about overall family climate, and children explained their feelings of social anxiety, friendship quality, and loneliness. All three aspects — mother rejection, father rejection, and overall family climate — influenced the child's relationships. A positive family climate led to higher quality friendships and less feelings of loneliness.
Having strong, healthy relationships is essential to a child's well-being. Paula Lavis, coordinator of the Children and Young People's Mental Health Coalition, blogged about this topic for the Mental Health Foundation, explaining that attachment between parent and child influences later relationships:
A securely attached child will learn that their parents/carer will comfort them when they are distressed, and they will develop a sense that they are worthy of being consoled and loved. This is essential for healthy development in the child, and will set them up for a good start in life. Children who are securely attached are better able to manage their own feelings and behaviors and better able to relate to others.
Once children are able to manage their own emotions, they can better form close relationships. Another researcher in the study Gregory Fosco, associate professor of human development and family studies, explained how relationships during childhood impact children, according to the Penn State News Room:
Adolescents' success in forming positive, close relationships is such an important feature of that developmental period. These relationships help them achieve a sense of independence and to explore their identity and the world around them.
Mak explained that the knowledge that father rejection predicts social anxiety is particularly revealing because fathers don't tend to be included in family research, "so it's important to know more about fathers and how they influence adolescent friendship and loneliness."
Building and maintaining strong relationships within a family is crucial. To that end, these findings could be used in the future to determine how to best support families and reinforce the important relationships between fathers and their children.
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