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How a Negative Family Environment Can Scar Someone

Positive family relationships create happy, healthy adults.

Key points

  • A positive family environment is one in which family members get along well and are supportive of one another.
  • A positive family environment can lead to better health and happiness as an adult.
  • Individuals growing up in less supportive, high-conflict families may see the world differently.

How important is the early family environment in which you were raised? Specifically, can your early experiences in your childhood and adolescent family affect you as an adult, in both good and bad ways? The results of a series of longitudinal research studies, following people from age 1 into middle adulthood, suggest that, yes, the quality of family relationships early in life can affect you long into adulthood.

The Fullerton Longitudinal Study (FLS) began in Southern California studying children at one year of age, and their parents as well. Assessments took place every year, with measurements continuing into adulthood. Along with measures of the child and parents, a number of assessments were made of the quality of the family environment. One such measure assessed “positive family relationships” (PFR) which was characterized by family members getting along well and supporting one another. Families high on the PFR scale had supportive parents and low levels of conflict, and the child tended to have a more positive self-concept and perform better academically, as one might expect. Importantly, the quality of the family environment was independent of the family’s socioeconomic status (Preston et al., 2016).

A recent study looked at how this variable of positive family relationships affected the children 30 years later, in mid-adulthood. The results suggest that children who grew up in more positive family environments reported that they were happier, and more physically and mentally healthy, than children who grew up in families that were much less cohesive and supportive (Ramos, et al., 2022).

Another study underway is looking at how that early family environment affects people’s attitudes at work, and early results suggest that working adults who grew up in more positive families are more optimistic about their careers and that they are more resilient and “immune” to high levels of work stress.

What about children who grew up in families that were less supportive and had high levels of conflict? In another study that looked at how people viewed leaders, we found that children from these high-conflict families tended to believe that the best leaders were “strong man” types who were domineering, manipulative, dominant, power-hungry, and selfish (Walker, et al., 2020). Why would anyone support this type of leader? One suggestion is that these children grew up in high-conflict families where they observed parents using these sorts of tactics to keep conflict under control – they might have yelled yell and even gotten physical. So, watching a “tyrannical” parent control a chaotic family environment may have led these individuals to believe that strong-man leadership tactics work well.

Research on this unique longitudinal study, now more than 40 years old, continues. To learn more about the FLS study, click here.


Preston, K. S., Gottfried, A. W., Oliver, P. H., Gottfried, A. E., Delany, D. E., & Ibrahim, S. M. (2016). Positive family relationships: Longitudinal network of relations. Journal of family psychology, 30(7), 875.

Ramos, M. C., Cheng, C. H. E., Preston, K. S., Gottfried, A. W., Guerin, D. W., Gottfried, A. E., ... & Oliver, P. H. (2022). Positive family relationships across 30 years: Predicting adult health and happiness. Journal of Family Psychology.

Walker, D. O., Reichard, R. J., Riggio, R. E., & Keller Hansbrough, T. (2020). Who might support a tyrant? An exploration of links between adolescent family conflict and endorsement of tyrannical implicit leadership theories. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 27(4), 340-356.

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