Family is for life

Family is for life

Media release — 21 September 2010

Australian children who grew up in families where they were maltreated, experienced poverty, or had less supportive parents are significantly more likely to develop psychological problems as young adults, according to research released today by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Almost a quarter of 1,000 young people in the study aged 23-24 reported experiencing emotional or other forms of maltreatment prior to the age of 18 and went on to experience depression and anxiety at around twice the rate of those who had a more positive childhood family experience.

Australian Institute of Family Studies Director, Professor Alan Hayes said the study was one of the first to examine childhood experiences and their impact on people as young adults.

"The study shows that doing well in young adulthood relies on the active investment of parents' love, affection and encouragement during childhood.  It's not just the absence of negative events that makes the difference, but high quality parenting as distinct from the 'good enough' variety," Professor Hayes said.

The study – which drew on data from the Australian Temperament Project – found that 94 per cent of young people said they were shown love and affection by their parents, despite the presence of serious family difficulties for some.

Almost a quarter (23 per cent) reported one or more forms of maltreatment, ranging from a high of 17 per cent who reported emotional maltreatment to a low of 3 per cent who reported being neglected.

Other family difficulties included the 18 per cent of those who experienced poverty, and the 12 per cent of young people who grew up with a parent who had a mental illness or substance abuse problem.

The study found that 30 per cent of those who had less supportive family relationships as children had experienced depression at 23-24 years of age, compared to 12 per cent of those with very supportive parents. Twenty five per cent of those who grew up with less supportive parents suffered from anxiety, compared to 14 per cent who had had a more positive childhood experience.

Lead researcher Diana Smart said children who grew up in positive family relationships tended to do well in early adulthood, but about one third who went through negative or traumatic events as children experienced negative effects as young adults.

"Children who grew up with supportive parents showed higher levels of personal strengths, social competence, trust and tolerance of others and an overall trust in authorities like the police or governments.  Laying those strong foundations appears to buffer young people from developing mental health problems," she said.

"However individuals in this study who experienced child maltreatment were not impaired in their ability to contribute to society or to function in the social sphere.  Rather they were more likely to show lower levels of personal strengths and to need support to deal with depression and anxiety."

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