In a recent article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development, researchers examined the longitudinal association between mental health symptoms and prosocial behavior, i.e., behaviors intended to benefit others, such as sharing, showing empathy, and donating. They also explored the effects of parent-child relationships from early childhood to late adolescence (i.e., in formative years) on this association.
Study: The role of parent–child interactions in the association between mental health and prosocial behavior: Evidence from early childhood to late adolescence. Image Credit: Motortion Films/Shutterstock.com
Epidemiological studies have shown that internalizing and externalizing mental health problems arise early during the lifespan or in the formative early years. These encompass emotional/affective (anxiety) and behavioral (e.g., hyperactivity) mental health symptoms.
However, there is a lack of studies connecting mental health symptoms and prosociality accounting for the impact of the quality of parent-child relationships through all developmental periods from early childhood to late adolescence, i.e., ages five (early childhood), seven (middle childhood), 11 (early adolescence), 14 (middle adolescence), and 17 (late adolescence).
Preliminary empirical evidence suggested a directional relationship between mental health symptoms and prosociality, e.g., higher prosociality predicts lower mental health symptoms (negative predictor).
Conversely, another study found that depression predicted lower prosociality and early prosociality predicted lower externalizing problems. Given these inconsistent findings, it is highly likely that this relationship is more complex.
About the study
The Relational-Developmental Systems theory conceptually reinforces that the behavioral patterns of parents influence a child’s development and psychopathology. Thus, in the current study, researchers considered three types of parent-child interactions:
i) parent-child conflict (e.g., disagreements);
ii) child maltreatment (e.g., verbal aggression); and
iii) parent-child closeness (e.g., showing warmth).
They used all three indicators of parent-child interactions to assess the impact of parent-child relationships on mental health symptoms and prosociality during early childhood and adolescence.
The team used data from a community sample of 10,703 children (50% females) from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).
In this study, researchers interviewed families and their children at ages five, seven, 11, 14, and 17, accounting for longitudinal attrition predictors, such as the child’s ethnicity and parental occupational and socioeconomic status (covariates).
They used the five-item Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) to detect symptoms of child psychopathology and its prosociality scale to measure prosociality.
They used the composite scores per scale as indicators. In addition, the team used the Straus Tactics Conflict scale and Pianta scale to measure physical/psychological maltreatment and parent-child closeness and conflict, respectively.
The State-Trait-Occasion (STO) modeling with nationally representative data suggested that internalizing and externalizing mental health symptoms were more trait-like in adolescence and not subject to situational flux. Conversely, situational circumstances influenced prosociality more during childhood, confirming theories that prosociality becomes refined in adolescence.
Another unique within-individual transient longitudinal finding was that the regression coefficients from earlier prosociality to internalizing or externalizing mental health symptoms were extremely weak and statistically insignificant, even after adjusting for study covariates.
The longitudinal examinations monitor temporal changes separately within and between individuals. So, while cross-sectionally, adolescents and children with high prosociality scores displayed lower mental health symptoms, the longitudinal examination did not consolidate this occasion-specific beneficial effect.
Interestingly, only within-person occasion-specific changes in externalizing mental health symptoms predicted lower prosociality, especially from middle childhood onwards.
The trait correlation outlines the association between children’s symptoms and prosociality levels for the developmental period between ages 5 and 17. The current study examination did not favor that the association between high prosociality and more mental health symptoms is positive.
Instead, it showed that the correlations between the internalizing and externalizing mental health symptoms and latent trait prosociality were negative with high statistical significance.
The results suggested that individuals who consistently demonstrated high prosociality from age five-17 tended to have low internalizing and externalizing mental health symptoms, implying those having an inherent dispositional mechanism to be resilient showed high prosociality and did not develop mental health symptoms throughout the formative years.
The study highlighted the importance of teaching young kids the value of showing empathy, kindness, and help, even if others are hurting, as this might have a protective effect against mental health problems later.
The researchers also emphasized fostering better parent-child interactions to improve mental health at the community level. High-quality parent-child interactions, such as closeness and appropriate physical and psychological treatment, could encourage increased prosociality.
There is a need for more effective and long-lasting mental health interventions targeting social-emotional skills and prosociality.
Thus, in the future, more robust longitudinal studies should extend the current findings and identify which aspects of prosociality might be most beneficial for children and which other variables could promote improved psychopathological outcomes.
Family-based parenting training interventions, especially in high-risk settings, might also help reduce the risk of mental health symptoms and prosociality deficits.