Mental health conversations – Parental influences essential to healthy childhood development

Home National Mental health conversations – Parental influences essential to healthy childhood development
Mental health conversations – Parental influences essential to healthy childhood development

Present and active parents – mothers and fathers – are significant to children’s development and life in general. Psychology theorist Erick Erickson explains human development from infancy through to adulthood in his eight stages of psychosocial development theory. The theorist purports that all human beings go through these stages of development, and that genetics and social influences are central to how we develop as people. For instance, when we are able to successfully go through these stages, we are likely to develop healthy personalities and characteristics that will help us navigate our lives positively, and vice versa. 

Of note, we don’t passively just go through any development stage; the active involvement of parental/caregiver response, especially during early childhood, influence how we respond to ourselves and interpret the world. For example, when mothers are nurturing, warm and consistent during infancy period, toddlers are likely to establish trust easily with others and interpret the world as a safe place, even when it’s not. Similarly, active fathers are pivotal in guiding children during puberty, as young people struggle with an identity crisis during this time. 

However, this is not the case for the majority of children globally, more so, in the Namibian context, where children grow up in single-headed households because of divorces, relationship break-ups or inactive parenting. These unfortunate situations not only predispose children to unhealthy personalities from the onset, but also makes them susceptible to unhealthy influences, which inadvertently contributes to mental health problems during childhood or later in life. When girls don’t grow up with involved father figures, they are likely to seek attention and love in other men who cannot meet this need (fatherly love), and in some cases are subjected or either subject themselves to abusive relationships. Likewise, boys can also become dysfunctional in many areas of their lives without proper guidance and love, such as substance abuse or suicidal tendencies. 

A UK study (2007) states that children of separated parents are likely to have negative experiences opposed to children with intact family units. The former group of children have a high probability of running away from home, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, breaking laws, emotional and behavioural challenges which could be generational, being unemployed, entering adulthood unsuccessfully, relationship difficulties, as well as mental health problems. In a clinical context, children and adolescents with these experiences may qualify for diagnoses such as conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and antisocial personality disorder as well as borderline personality disorder, provided they meet the criteria. 

The research further posits that when fathers are active in their children’s lives prior to age seven, a healthy parent-child relationship is established during puberty that translates into satisfactory relationships in adulthood. Also, this group of children are less likely to be law offenders, and are strongly correlated to academic achievement (2007).  

Of course, there’s no script for parenting as oftentimes parents model their parents’ behaviours, and as a result, some parents can easily negate parental involvement with quips, such as “I also didn’t grow up with both parents”. Additionally, current-day parents (both) have to take up employment to provide for their households, unlike the previous generations where mothers mostly stayed home to rear children whilst fathers were working to provide for the family. Nonetheless, prioritising children’s well-being and raising healthy people is also a parental responsibility. 

Children mostly want emotional connections with their parents, especially their fathers. According to research, when children are more connected to their fathers, they are more content and satisfied as well as less troubled, irrespective of the quality of the mother-child dyad (2007). 

If you’ve been an uninvolved parent, it’s never too late. 

* Justine /Oaes (Clinical Psychologist Intern)