Numerous studies have shown that strong family ties reduce the likelihood of bad outcomes in children, such as risky behavior and substance abuse, but this study showed there can be positive outcomes, too, said the study’s lead 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 that it showed that family ties are associated with thriving and not just with surviving or avoiding harm,” Whitaker said.
The researchers surveyed more than 37,000 children in 26 countries and found that teens who reported being close to their family also reported being successful in life.
Family attachment was determined by a median score from five categories: caring, support, security, respect, and participation. For each topic, participants were given a statement and asked to rate their agreement by giving them points from zero (disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). For example, to measure caring, children were asked how much they agreed with the statement “I feel safe at home”.
The essence of family bonding is that children feel accepted and nurtured at home, allowing them to learn their strengths and weaknesses in a safe environment while building their identity, Whitaker said.
Flourishing was determined by an average score across six categories: self-acceptance, life purpose, positive relationships with others, personal growth, environmental mastery, and autonomy. The survey structure was the same as Therefore family connections, except that the ranking system ran from zero to 10.
When it comes to thriving, it’s about children 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
According to the study, children with the highest level of family attachment were over 49% more likely to thrive than children with the lowest level of family attachment.
According to Elaine Reese, a professor of psychology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, who was not involved in the study, not having depression and anxiety is not enough to lead a good life.
“Living well requires a sense of purpose and meaning, and that’s what the flourishing scale in this study measures,” she said.
The highest scores for both family ties and thriving came from children who reported living with both parents, having enough to eat, or never having to worry about their family’s finances.
The researchers then reviewed data on families’ poverty levels, including financial circumstances and food insecurity, to remove the impact they might have had on the numbers. After accounting for these factors, the strength of family ties still affected how much children thrived.
How to strengthen family cohesion
Adults have a very powerful influence on the emotional climate in the home, so creating a space where children feel seen and heard is important, Whitaker said.
A great opportunity to strengthen family bonds is around the dinner table, he said. Adults should create an environment in which children feel comfortable speaking freely. As they speak, adults should show they have a genuine interest in what their children are saying and try to withhold judgment, Whitaker added.
Adults don’t have to make big gestures to connect with their kids, Reese said. Having meaningful conversations is more important to your connection than taking them on expensive trips, she said.
Silence is also another powerful form of communication, he said.
According to Whitaker, children and parents or their caregivers spending time together in silence or even running errands or doing chores can create a connection.
“We don’t necessarily have to fill those moments with chatter or radio,” he said.
Other adults can affect how children thrive
In the future, Whitaker wants to study the impact of community members like teachers on children, Whitaker said.
“We suspect that sense of connection to non-parents Adults probably make teens more likely to thrive,” he said in an email.
External relationships are important and affect children, especially in infancy and early childhood, said Kelly-Ann Allen, an educational and developmental psychologist and lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. She was not involved in the study.
“When children experience healthy trusting relationships early on, they are more likely to build healthy trusting relationships as adults,” she said.