Parenting and child health

Findings from Growing Up in Scotland (GUS)

There has been little research on the impact of day-to-day parenting on children's physical and mental health. In a recent report from GUS, researchers used data from the study to look at how aspects of day-to-day parenting affect children's health and health behaviours and whether differences in parenting help explain inequalities in child health.

Children's health during their first five years was examined by using data on general health, longstanding illnesses, behavioural difficulties, dental health, recent short-term health problems and accidents and injuries. Health behaviours considered were physical activity, 'screen time' (watching TV or playing computer games), fruit and vegetable consumption and snacking on crisps, sweets and sugary drinks.

Three aspects of parenting were examined to create a parenting skills 'index': 'connection' (love and togetherness), 'negativity' (conflict and harsh discipline) and 'control' (supervision, routine and regularity).


Low overall parenting skills were associated with a number of poorer health outcomes and health behaviours amongst children. In particular, high levels of parent-child conflict were associated with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties amongst children. Low parental supervision was associated with poor general health, limiting long-term illness and behavioural difficulties. Children experiencing a high level of mother-child activities and rules at home were more likely to exhibit healthy behaviours than those who took part in few activities or had few rules at home.

A measure of 'family adversity' was used to examine the relationships between circumstances such as low income or living in an area of high deprivation, parenting and inequalities in health. In general, children living in families experiencing greater adversity were more likely to experience poor health and less healthy behaviours. Children in families experiencing high levels of adversity were more likely than others to experience low parenting skills. Parents experiencing challenging circumstances were less likely to report a warm relationship with their child, to share activities with their child and to exercise control over their child's behaviour.

The findings suggest that policy measures to improve parenting skills may benefit child physical and mental health.  The health benefits of better parenting appear greatest for families experiencing higher levels of adversity. However, given that day-to-day parenting accounts for some, but not all of the health inequalities linked to family adversity, and family adversity remained associated with poorer health outcomes after taking account of variations in parenting, programmes to improve parenting skills are likely to form only part of the solution to reducing social inequalities in health.

Read the full report: 'Growing Up in Scotland: Parenting and children's health' by Alison Parkes and Daniel Wight, MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit:


GUS is the longitudinal research study following the lives of thousands of children and their families right across Scotland from birth through to the teenage years. GUS is funded by the Scottish Government and is carried out by the Scottish Centre for Social Research in collaboration with the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh and the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow. For more information see