The parent-child relationship has a greater impact on children’s psychological wellbeing than family structure and income, a new report has found.

Up to a fifth of nine-year-old children displayed significant levels of emotional, social or behavioural problems, according to the fourth report from Growing Up in Ireland , the national longitudinal study of children.

The report by Dr Elizabeth Nixon of Trinity College Dublin looked at social and emotional outcomes of some 8,500 nine-year-olds. Conflict with parents and closeness to the mother were both strongly associated with the child’s social and emotional wellbeing, the report found.

Mother and child conflict was higher in single-parent households and lower income households, it found. Inherent stress in these homes may increase the risk of conflict, the study suggests.

“Family structure and income do matter but not as much as we might think because the parenting process and child characteristics remain key,” Dr Nixon said.

The use of an authoritarian style of parenting (highly controlling and low response) was associated with more difficulties in children. It was used by 4.1 per cent of mothers and 7 per cent of fathers.

Boys were particularly affected by this style and more likely than girls to experience authoritarian parenting. The high levels of control in authoritarian parenting may be more difficult for boys because of norms that they be dominant and assertive.

Neglectful parenting was associated with negative outcomes for girls. Single mothers with three or more children were twice as likely (7.7 per cent) to use neglectful parenting than others.

Authoritative parenting was most beneficial and was used by more than three-quarters of parents. This type of parenting involves being warm and responsive but with expectations and discipline.

The mental health of a mother was also a factor, with depressed mothers having high conflict and low closeness with their children.

Innate characteristics in a child such as being a boy, having a learning difficulty and a temperament of “emotionality” were more associated with difficulties than parenting or family factors.

Higher levels of “emotionality” (for example reacting intensively when upset) and lower levels of sociability in a child were associated with difficulties.

Boys showed more behavioural problems (such as conduct and hyperactivity) than girls and more emotional and social problems overall. Girls displayed more internalising symptoms (such as depression and anxiety).

Chronic illness or a learning difficulty was associated with “elevated risk” of social and emotional problems. Such children may be deprived of important socialisation experiences, the report said.

Among the report’s recommendations were programmes to help build children’s skills in developing relationships and regulating emotions and supports for parents to build positive relationships with their children.

Social and emotional difficulties in children relate to problems later in life such as low educational attainment and mental health difficulties, Dr Nixon said.

“What happens between children and their parent matters whether they are in a lone parent family, in a socio-economically deprived area or not,” Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said. How parents interact with children can be “hugely protective” even in adverse situations.

Ms Fitzgerald said she had prioritised support for families and parents. Children with problems could be helped through earlier assessment, better matching of parenting programmes and identifying women at risk of postnatal depression.


– Being a boy

– Conflict with the mother

– Being from a low-income family

– Having a learning difficulty

– High levels of emotionality

Parenting styles of mothers and fathers:


Mothers: 77.1%

Fathers: 67.8% 


Mothers: 4.1%

Fathers: 7% 


Mothers: 16.3%

Fathers: 19.6%


Mothers: 2.5%

Fathers: 5.6%

Previously treated for depression:

Mothers: 14%

Fathers: 6.2%

By Genevieve Carbery

Source: Irish Times –