Breaking research

Teens are more helpful and caring if they have understanding, warm mothers

Teenagers from deprived backgrounds are more likely to be kind, moral and helpful to others if they have a loving mother who shows them empathy and warmth, finds a new study.

We already know that having the support of warm, caring parents is vital for many aspects of a child’s development, particularly those from low income families who face additional health and education disadvantages.

However until now it hasn’t been clear what effect maternal warmth has on a child’s empathy, their moral codes, and their tendency to help, or want to help others.

In the study, published in the Journal of Moral Education, researchers looked at the effect of having a caring mom on ‘prosocial behaviours’ – actions intended to benefit others, such as donating, volunteering or comforting others.

Examples of prosocial behaviours include comforting others when they are upset, lending a hand in an emergency, or helping out when asked to. These actions can be ‘anonymous’, for example giving to charity without others knowing, or ‘public’, e.g. only helping when other people can see what you do. Helping someone even when you receive no benefit yourself is known as altruism.

To find out how having a caring and understanding mom affected these behaviours, researchers travelled to a high school in a working class, low-resource area of Missouri, where 61% of students qualify for a free or reduced lunch. They then gave 311 students a questionnaire asking them about their relationship with their mom, their moral beliefs and attitudes, and how likely they were to help others.

The study showed that teenagers with warm mothers showed higher levels of empathic concern, which means they were more likely to feel sorrow or concern when others were upset. They also had stronger moral beliefs, which in turn meant that they were more likely to help someone in an emergency, comfort someone who appears upset, and help out ‘anonymously’. The combination of these two qualities – empathic concern and strong moral beliefs – was also associated with altruistic behaviour.

Finally, teenagers who had a positive relationship with their mom were especially good at helping out when asked, possible due to being used to helping out with chores around the house.

“We found that mothers who are warm tend to promote moral development in their youth,” says Professor Alexandra Davis from the University of New Mexico, who led the study.

“We also found that a specific combination of traits predicted altruism, so young people who were highly empathic, but also felt passionate about moral issues were most likely to help others, even when they received no benefit themselves.”

The study has important repercussions, as it suggests that having a warm and supportive mom gives children a secure foundation and a model for empathy that they can then draw on when helping others. However providing this level of care may be difficult for parents under conditions of reduced resources and economic stress.

“Parents who are struggling to make ends meet may feel overwhelmed and focused on surviving, and may not have the resources or flexibility to engage with their children the way they wish,” says Professor Davis. “Parents also often work longer hours and are distracted by the pressing needs surrounding them.”