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Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio. She writes regularly for Contemporary Pediatrics, Managed Healthcare Executive, and Medical Economics.
Parental roles are important to establishing healthy behaviors, but a new report delves into the cardiovascular effects of these relationships and the differences between maternal and paternal bonds.
The relationship a child has with his or her parent early in life can set up the child’s own cardiovascular health for the teenaged years, and mothers and fathers have different influences on these trends.
Published in Preventive Medicine in March 2018, the study examines the effects that parent/child relationships in childhood could have on the development of cardiovascular risks by adolescence.
Researchers used 917 parent-child pairs from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, investigating physical health and features as well as social elements of child/parent relationships and how they impacted cardiovascular health markers later in life.1 The team found that overall, parent relationships had significant effect on cardiovascular health markers, but whether these effects were good or bad relied on the type of relationship and the parent involved.
Relationships with fathers were associated with increased growth rates of triceps skinfold thickness in teenaged girls, but not teenaged boys, according to the report. Additionally, conflict scores that were higher in maternal/daughter dyads led to increased growth rate in body mass index (BMI) percentiles among teenaged girls, whereas there were lower rates of BMI growth in paternal/son dyads with high conflict levels. Hostile paternal/daughter relationships were associated with increased triceps skinfold thickness in girls.
Although these measurements may seem insignificant in the teenaged years, they are indicators of lifelong health status. “A number of psychosocial stressors influence the development of cardiovascular health measures in youth,” the report notes.
Parental involvement and support early in life have long been shown to have significant impact on lifelong growth and development, but this study highlights that both positive and negative relationships impact health development, and that parental gender plays a role as well.
The research team concludes that close mother-son relationships may be preventive to heart health, and that overall a warm parental connection among boys is a safeguard against the physical and psychological fallout from chronic exposure throughout the rest of their lives.
Effects of maternal/paternal discord
However, there are some differences not only in how positive the parent relationship is in terms of how it impacts the child, but also which parent the relationship is with. Researchers found that hostile mother/son relationships were associated with negative health behaviors such as increased heart rate and lower physical activity, and dramatic paternal relationships were associated with increased BMI.
“The results indicate that boys’ adiposity development may be highly sensitive to the quality of paternal relationships,” the report notes.
“This finding is consistent with previous findings that boys show more aggressive behaviors toward their parents and were more frequently exposed to parental conflict and hostility, and that boys might be more susceptible to adverse effects of family discord.”
In girls, too, high levels of conflict and hostility in paternal relationships increased adiposity measures in the teenaged years. “Our results indicate this dynamic may have a powerful impact on the development of certain health measures during adolescence,” the report notes.
In fact, hostile paternal relationships between fathers and daughters had an impact on triceps skinfold thickness development that was 3-fold greater than the effect from maternal relationships.
“This finding might be explained by the fathering vulnerability hypothesis, which suggests that the father-child relationship appears more susceptible to the influence of parental hostility than mother-child relationship,” the study suggests. “Thus, the results emphasized a more influential effect of the father in girls’ general adiposity development, rather than what is traditionally emphasized on mother’s influence.”
Parent relationships and cardiovascular health
Zhongzheng Niu, a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Buffalo, New York, and the first author of the study, says the research was funded by the American Heart Association and highlights the importance of the parent relationship on future cardiovascular health, noting that these effects are modified by both the parents and the children.
“Our study found differences in the impacts on children’s cardiovascular health between maternal and paternal relationships with their children,” Niu says. “We first examined parent/child relationships in 2 separate domains-closeness and conflict. We found maternal conflict was associated with accelerated adiposity growth in girls and with accelerated heart rate growth in boys. Meanwhile, maternal closeness may have a protective effect as associated with decelerated heart rate growth in boys. However, none of these effects were observed in the father/child relationship.”
Several parent/child combinations were tested, Niu says, assessing different types of relationships and cardiovascular effects.
“Interestingly, we found a mother/child hostile relationship was associated with children’s blood pressure and heart rate, whereas father/child dramatic relationships were associated with children’s adiposity,” Niu says. “There is no direct answer to these observed differences. We deemed one possible reason is the different family functions of the father and the mother in the study cohort as a mother may spend more time and effects in taking care of the child than a father does, while a father may spend more time at work or so. Children also may have different perception of their parents and thus may have quite different reactions to their father and mother even if the underlying psychological stress is the same.”
Effects of gender and sex
Bin Xie, PhD, professor of Community and Global Health at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California, and the principal investigator of the study, says previous studies have focused on parents as a whole or maternal impacts on teenagers.
“We found the impact of the parent/child relationship on adolescent cardiovascular health not only depends on the gender of the parents but also on the sex of the child. In particular, the mother/child relationship seems to affect only boys’ blood pressure and heart rate but not on girls,” Xie says. “Interestingly, a dramatic paternal relationship may accelerate adiposity growth in boys but may decelerate that in girls. This may be due to different weight perception between boys and girls, and their different perceptions of the father’s role. There were also other studies that found boys showed more aggressive behavior toward their parents than girls, and that boys might be more susceptible to adverse effects of family discord than girls are.”
More research is needed to determine more specifically the influences fathers have separate from mothers, but Xie says there are some early ideas that help explain the difference in paternal effects on children.
“Research on parental attachment has suggested some qualitative differences between fathers and mothers in terms of their responses to child distress,” Xie says. “Fathers provide emotional support to their children through encouraging independence and exploration, whereas mothers provide emotional support by responding sensitively to child distress.”
It’s important to understand the factors that lead to accelerated adiposity growth in childhood, Niu says, because it’s such an important risk factor of obesity later in life. It can also lead to increased blood pressure and heart rates, which are 2 independent risk factors of future heart disease.
“Our study results indicate that warmth in parental relationship with children may impact their future cardiovascular health,” Niu says. “Pediatricians may provide guidance on fostering a warmer and less hostile relationship between parents and children. In addition, one cannot ignore the father’s important role in protecting children from initiating undesirable development of cardiovascular health later in life.”
Xie adds that there is much more researchers need to know, but it’s clear that parent relationships play a big role in cardiovascular health development.
“As adolescents may undergo a phase with sensitive feelings and vulnerability to family relationships, more patience and warmth are needed to protect them from obesity and undesirable trajectories of future health,” Xie says. “Further research is also needed to understand the mechanisms underlying the associations observed in this study.”
1. Niu Z, Tanenbaum H, Kiresich E, et al. Impact of childhood parent-child relationships on cardiovascular risks in adolescence. Prev Med. 2018;108:53-59.