Early Mother-Child Relationship Impacts Adult Sense Of Purpose

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Whether or not your child has purpose in their lives as an adult is on you, mom. (Figures)

According to new research from Washington University in St. Louis, children who have more conflict with their mothers in their early elementary school lives may find it more difficult to find a sense of purpose in life as adults. It is the first study to show long-term associations between a person’s early life experiences and adulthood purpose.

“This research shows that it’s the child’s perspective of conflict that has the greatest effect on later sense of purpose and what matters most in this equation is the child’s relationship with his or her mother,” said Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences and co-author of the study.

Early Mother-Child Relationship Impacts Adult Sense of Purpose

The study defines a “sense of purpose” as having the belief that they have a stable, far-reaching aim that organizes and stimulates behaviors and goals to promote progress towards an objective. This can impact setting goals and picking careers, but it also plays a key role in motivating children to develop life skills that adults need to be independent such as learning to cook, budgeting their money and more.

“One of the biggest takeaway messages from these findings is that the path to a purposeful life starts very early, well before we start to consider different goals for life,” Hill said.

The study was published in January 2019 print issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence and is based on a long-term study of 1,074 students and their parents in Oregon. They were all asked to self-report on the levels of parent-child conflict in their families during grades 1-5.

The respondents were asked true or false statements about their interactions together. Statements included: “We joke around often,” “We never have fun together,” or “We enjoy the talks we have.” Other questions asked whether “We get angry at each other” at least once a day, three times a week, or “a lot.”

Follow-up surveys were repeated until children reached 21-23-years-old. The surveys included questions on life satisfaction, perceived amounts of stress, how well they believed they could handle personal problems and the sense of control they felt over their lives.

To determine “sense of purpose” those follow-up questions included statements including: “There is a direction in my life,” “My plans for the future match with my true interests and values,” “I know which direction I am going to follow in my life,” and “My life is guided by a set of clear commitments.”

“A growing body of literature shows that having a sense of purpose is clearly something beyond just being satisfied with your life or not feeling stressed,” said Leah Schultz, doctoral student in psychological and brain sciences at Washington University. “With our design, we were able to disentangle these outcomes and see the direct relationship between parent conflict and sense of purpose.”

However, a big take away from the study was that only the children’s perspective of these early life incidents seemed to matter. Parents that reported issues with their children at an early elementary school age seemed to be a poor predictor of a child’s later sense of purpose.

Additionally, children who reported early, conflicted and negative relationships with their fathers were negatively impacted by those experiences, but the study didn’t find a strong correlation between those negative experiences and sense of purpose.

“In this study, we were able to look at factors of the parent-child relationship, like how much parents and children experience conflict,” Schultz said. “But it will be important for researchers to understand, specifically, how are parents demonstrating the value of a purposeful life? How are they helping children to define and pursue their own purposeful paths? Understanding the content of those conversations can help us all understand how conversations matter to the children in our lives.”

To see the abstract and learn more about the study, click here.

For more news and research, click here.


  1. We work so hard to have a good relationship… but who knows how it will turn out in the end. As an adult who had poor relationships with her parent I can say we get a choice as adults… we can choose to figure it out and change even if our start was wrong. 😉 so there is hope.

  2. So are they saying that a lack of purpose is based on the mother’s inability to make the child feel worthy of any purpose? It feels so abstract to say having conflicts with your mother makes a child unable to fulfill a purpose. Where does a growth mindset fit into this?

  3. Interesting post, to say the least. We as parents will always have some sort of conflicts with our kids. It’s a natural process of growing up. My mom and I butted heads some when I was a kid. She is one of my best friends now.

  4. I think love is the key to a good relationship with your kids. If you start with that, you have a great foundation to build upon, including helping give them a sense of purpose.

  5. I think if your mom berates you at an early age, you’re apt to not make something of yourself. I know some that have risen above that, but their relationship with their mom as an adult isn’t the best.

  6. This is all such valuable information! A mother is who a child looks to for emotional support and nurturing. If that is not available during such a crucial time, I can see why a child may suffer.

  7. The study they conducted was pretty interesting. I can see how it might be a good idea to reflect on your relationship with your kids and their future “sense of purpose.”

  8. That’s really interesting information. I think it’s fascinating that it really comes from the child’s perspective too. It makes sense but it also really makes you think about what kids are experiencing on a daily basis and what they will carry from it to the future.

  9. This is an interesting study. My kids are now 20 and 14 so I hope my relationships with them when they were younger has a positive outcome. I think the most fighting that happened with my daughter was when she was a teenager. We are too much alike sometimes.

  10. I was a good kid but as a teenager, I used to fight a lot with my mom over silly things! I feel so bad now 🙁 My mom is my role model and honestly, am doing well in my life. I didn’t know this relationship plays such an effective role in shaping one’s sense of purpose in adulthood. I shall share this post with my sister who has a 6years old baby 🙂

  11. I do believe in this! My mom used to be really intimidating and it affected our relationship until my early 20s. I’m just glad that we were able to reconnect but I still get intimidated by other people who look strict

  12. Wow, this is so eye opening. Who knew that there would be a correlation with conflict and l “purpose in life” in adulthood. It just reinforces the need to develop a strong foundation and nurturing relationship with your daughters.

  13. This is a great post and super interesting to read! I do think your relationship with your mom as a kid can effect how to act and perceive yourself as an adult but I also think as an adult you have a choice as to who you become 🙂

  14. This explains a lot. I believe in this as I experience it as well. I wish I had a closer relationship with my parents when I was young.

  15. This is so true! It took my 35 years to heal from some things in my past and to forgive my mother, but once I did, everything was fine and I have never felt more happier in my life.

  16. Parents play such an important role in a child’s life. Mothers are perhaps even more important since they’re the natural nurturers.

  17. This is such an interesting read! I can definitely see what they are trying to say though. Parents, especially mothers, have such a large role and impact in a child’s life from the very beginning. I hope that my son and I continue to have a close bond as the elementary years approach. Thanks for sharing!

  18. It’s interesting to read about these studies. I do believe in how we are raised really impacts us throughout our whole lives. It’s amazing how much we are shaped by our childhoods.

  19. This makes total sense. My kids are little and I believe very much what these studies have found. What you do early makes a huge impact.


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