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12 August 2019

Does being an older parent mean you may have better behaved kids?

A Dutch study investigated the reasons why delayed parenthood could lead to better behaviour in children.

Many people wait until they're older to have children, and that decision can raise the risk of problems like infertility and genetic abnormalities. But new research suggests there may be at least one benefit to having children later in life.

The study found that kids with at least one older parent were less likely to be defiant rule-breakers or physically aggressive.

Younger parents not doomed

"Older parents-to-be may be reassured that their age is not necessarily a negative factor with respect to behavioural problems in their child," said study author Marielle Zondervan-Zwijnenburg. She's a post-doctoral researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

But these findings don't mean that younger parents are doomed to have ill-behaved offspring. Zondervan-Zwijnenburg said that about 3% of the difference in children's "externalising" behaviours were related to parental age. Externalising behaviours are things like physical aggression, destruction of property and disobeying rules.

But what is it about delayed parenthood that could lead to even a small increase in better behaviour?

"We believe that older parents are more often able to create favourable environments for their children. Older parents may be more sensitive to the child's needs and provide more structure," Zondervan-Zwijnenburg said.

She added that older parents also likely have better financial resources and may have a higher education. However, the researchers did compare the effects of socioeconomic factors between younger and older parents. They said these factors didn't account for the differences in children's behaviour.

More impulsive traits

Another possibility is that younger parents who have more "externalising" behaviours may be more impulsive, which could be related to having children at a younger age, the study authors suggested.

Eric Herman, a clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, was familiar with the study. He agreed that younger parents might pass down more impulsive traits that could lead to a higher risk of behaviour problems.

The study included almost 33 000 Dutch children between the ages of 10 and 12. The kids were part of four different past studies. Parental ages ranged from 16 to 68.

Problem behaviours were reported by parents, teachers and even the children themselves.

The researchers saw positive effects if either the mother or the father was older. They didn't look at combined effects if both parents were older, however. The study found the positive effects were slightly more pronounced if the mother was older.

Certain behaviours called "internalising" behaviours weren't affected by the age of mom or dad. These are mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression and social withdrawal, Zondervan-Zwijnenburg said.

Autism and schizophrenia

Herman said this finding makes sense because internalised behaviours are often genetically based, and can happen despite a child's upbringing.

Herman also said that he doubted parents would make a decision about the timing of their children based on this study, but he suggested that it offers a bit of positive information to weigh against the potential risks involved in waiting to have kids.

"An increase in the father's age has been associated with autism and schizophrenia. There's a higher risk of chromosomal abnormalities and other medical problems when people decide to wait," he explained.

And there are so many different factors that influence how a child behaves – including parent ages, incomes, education, the child's education and peer group – that it's difficult to tease out what factors truly make an impact, Herman added.

What this study did show is that "parents really can make a difference in some behaviours", Herman said. And he thinks that's true no matter what your age when you become a parent.

The findings were published in the journal Child Development.

Image credit: iStock

 
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