Children of conservative parents are more likely to have good mental health compared to children of liberal parents, according to a new Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and Gallup research brief published Thursday.
“As it happens, being raised by liberal parents is a much larger risk factor for mental health problems in adolescence than being raised in a low-income household with parents who did not attend college,” wrote the brief’s author, Jonathan Rothwell, the principal economist at Gallup and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Children of conservative parents score significantly better on mental health using either a comprehensive measure of mental health based on several items, or just asking either parent or adolescents to summarize their mental health on a 1-5 scale. The gap is large,” Rothwell continued.
Rothwell and his colleagues at Gallup launched a study over the summer exploring what makes a positive relationship between adolescents and their parents and how the parent-adolescent relationship impacts youth mental health. They surveyed 6,643 parents, including 2,956 who live with an adolescent, and they interviewed 1,580 of those adolescents.
Rothwell wrote about his findings in an IFS blog post, noting that parents’ political ideology “is one of the strongest predictors” of a child’s positive mental health.
“Conservative and very conservative parents are the most likely to adopt the parenting practices associated with adolescent mental health. They are the most likely to effectively discipline their children, while also displaying affection and responding to their needs,” he wrote.
Conversely, he said “liberal parents score the lowest, even worse than very liberal parents, largely because they are the least likely to successfully discipline their children.”
“By contrast, conservative parents enjoy higher quality relationships with their children, characterized by fewer arguments, more warmth, and a stronger bond, according to both parent and child reporting,” he continued.
By the numbers, researchers found that adolescents with very conservative parents are 16 to 17 percentage points more likely to be in good or excellent health compared to their peers with very liberal parents.
“Only 55 percent of adolescents of liberal parents reported good or excellent mental health compared to 77 percent of those with conservative or very conservative parents,” the study found.
ὄSurprising new @Gallup @FamStudies study finds "Conservative parents are most likely to adopt parenting practices associated w/ adolescent mental health… most likely to effectively discipline their children, while also displaying affection & responding to their needs." https://t.co/sO29TWkvM0
— Brad Wilcox (@BradWilcoxIFS) November 30, 2023
Researchers additionally found that conservative parents are 8 percentage points more likely to be in a good relationship with their adolescent child than liberal parents, with a gap of 14 percentage points between very conservative and liberal parents.
“Interestingly, however, ‘very liberal; parents score much higher than liberal parents, only slightly behind conservatives, with no significant difference,” the study read. “Still, the relationship quality gap favors conservative over liberal parents whether it is self-reported or reported by the child.”
The study noted that disciplinary action “shows the largest political divide.”
“For example, 80 percent of very conservative parents disagreed with the statement: ‘my child often gets their way when we have a conflict,’ compared to 66 percent of conservative parents, 64 percent of moderate parents, 53 percent of liberal parents, and 55 percent of very liberal parents,” the study read, noting that “very conservative” parents are also somewhat more likely to report giving their child affection every day.
What’s strongest predictor of HI-Quality Parent-Child Relationships?
✓ Not 💵 or educ
✓ “single strongest predictor of child-parent relationship quality is parent-partner relationship quality” +
✓ “ideology & attitudes toward marriage also strongly predictive”
— Brad Wilcox (@BradWilcoxIFS) December 1, 2023
The study additionally found that parents who hold “more pro-marriage attitudes” are “more likely to engage in best practice parenting.” Participants were asked to agree or disagree with the three following items:
- Marriage improves partnerships by strengthening the commitment to one another.
- I hope my child marries someone, when the time is right.
- Marriage is an outdated institution.
“Those agreeing with the top two items and disagreeing with the third demonstrate a strong pro-marriage attitude, and they are significantly more likely to employ responsive-disciplined parenting practices compared to parents who do not hold these views,” the study found.
“The single strongest predictor of child-parent relationship quality is parent-partner relationship quality. A parent who rates his or her spousal relationship as an 8 out of 10 is 23 percentage points more likely to be in a good (above average) relationship with his or her adolescent child, compared to a parent experiencing romantic discord,” the study continued.
Overall, researchers said the most important factor in the mental health of adolescent children “is the quality of the relationship with their caregiver.” That relationship is strongly related to parenting practices, “with the best results coming from warm, responsive, and rule-bound, disciplined parenting,” Rothwell wrote.
Rothwell pointed out that more than 1,000 published studies that have “tested the relationship between parenting styles and internalizing symptoms of mental illness — such as anxiety and depression — as well as externalizing behavior, such as aggression and delinquency.”
Those studies have ultimately found that authoritative parenting is linked to fewer mental health problems and delinquent behavior, both at the time of measurement and in the future, he wrote.
“Both harsh and overly permissive parenting predicts higher risk of mental health problems and problematic behaviors, as does neglectful parenting,” he added.
Rothwell analyzed national mortality records to find that since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, 18 times more U.S. teenagers have “died from deaths of despair than from COVID-19” between 2020 and 2023. Even so, “decades of compelling research on the links between parenting and mental health have nonetheless been largely ignored by the major institutions charged with promoting mental health in the United States,” he wrote.
“One reason may be that the public health organizations like the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics have increasingly focused on timely partisan issues ranging from COVID-19 policies to the desirability of medical interventions for youth with mental health problems,” he wrote. “These issues allow the organizations to exercise cultural influence, but they are reactive and not built on a strong scientific foundation.”
Rothwell contended that public health leaders instead have “aimed to redress the issue with medicalization” and “scarcely mention family-centered or individual psychotherapy that could focus on healing or strengthening relationships.”
“The nation’s mental health leaders need to resist the temptation to be hip to the latest cultural fads and recommit to translating useful scientific research to the public,” he concluded. “That means being honest about the youth mental health crisis: It is largely about parenting.”