Preterm birth and parent-child relationships: the long-term impact for children and adolescents

The family environment influences the child’s social-emotional development. Especially in preterm-born children, these influences seem to be greater than in peers born at term. O’Brien and others studied the relationship between preterm children and their parent-child relationship. The findings show that there is a stronger link between maternal conflict and increased socioemotional difficulties in very preterm children than in children born at term.

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Preterm birth (<37 weeks of gestation) may lead to many negative consequences for the development of a child. It is known that biological effects increase the risk of many health complications and diseases. However, also the family environment, including the relationship between parents and their child, has an impact on the child’s social, behavioural and educational development, which is shown in previous studies. In families with many conflicts between parent and child, or when the mother is less sensitive towards the child, problems in adolescence and peer relationships were noted.

The study by O’Brien and others included 8,598 nine-year-old children and their families who are participating in the “Growing-Up” study (a nationally representative longitudinal cohort study of children living in Ireland). The parents and children were interviewed. In addition, the children also completed the so-called “Drumcondra Reasoning” test, which is a standardised assessment test.

The results show that children born preterm had more socio-emotional difficulties and lower language-and numerical- abilities in late childhood and early adolescence. Late preterm birth, however, was only linked to lower numerical abilities. In summary, parental conflicts have a negative impact on the development of the child, whereas it is beneficial when there is a high degree of parental closeness.

Paper available at: American Psychological Association

Full list of authors: Fearghal O’Brien, Elizabeth Nixon and Kristin Hadfield

DOI: 10.1037/dev0001464