A lot can happen during a life—career changes, marriages, divorces, births, deaths, not to mention all the small stuff in between—but childhood lays an important foundation that can last a lifetime. A long-running study published in September 2016 in Psychological Science found that men who grew up in warmer, more nurturing family environments had stronger relationships as older adults.
The research is a continuation of Harvard University's Study of Adult Development, a longitudinal study of adult health and well-being that has spanned almost eight decades. At its outset in 1938, researchers enrolled male Harvard students and inner-city Boston teens and used lengthy interviews to rate the quality of the boys' family environments. Different researchers then followed up with the men in midlife to assess how successfully they were able to manage negative emotions. In the most recent study, co-authors Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, and Marc Schulz, a psychologist at Bryn Mawr College, conducted in-depth interviews with the men, now in their 80s, to determine their level of attachment to their partners.
Waldinger and Schulz determined that regardless of socioeconomic standing the men raised in warmer family environments used healthier strategies to manage their negative emotions in midlife and were also more securely attached to their partners late in life. These results suggest our childhood environment affects our relationships not only into early adulthood but for the rest of our life.
Chris Fraley, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies attachment but was not involved in the present study, points out that so much can happen between childhood and old age, from financial hardship to illness to divorce. “The fact that the authors found such an association is remarkable,” he says, “and raises a number of questions about the factors that explain why it exists.”
For Schulz, the findings highlight the need for services such as family leave that support parents and allow them to create better family environments. He also stresses the importance of good social services that can intervene when children end up in poor or unsafe family settings. “I think the take-home [message] is that kids may not remember specific events, particularly early in their life,” Schulz says, “but the accumulation of loving, nurturing family environments really has an impact over a long period.”
Waldinger and Schulz also emphasize that there are many ways to overcome having a less than idyllic childhood, such as actively working on developing warmer, more stable relationships as an adult or learning how to use healthier strategies to deal with negative emotions.
“The bottom line,” Waldinger says, “is that how we take care of children is just so vitally important.”