If you want to avoid breeding a litter of devilish miscreants, who don’t get along well with others, consider spending some quality time with them on your own. A new study finds that kids who have strong relationships with their parents are better at making friends and adapting to a wide array of temperaments.

Child psychologists have long known that kids who feel more attached at home tend to project that sense of comfort into their own dealings. Now researchers from the University of Illinois have found the unique phenomenon that children who enjoy strong bonds with their parents are more adept at navigating social situations with a measure of grace and flexibility. Not only do the more securely attached kids comport themselves better; they diffuse anger-prone children in the process.

"Securely attached children are more responsive to suggestions or requests made by a new peer partner,” said Nancy McElwain, professor of human development, in a statement. “A child who has experienced a secure attachment relationship with caregivers is likely to come into a new peer relationship with positive expectations.”

McElwain and her colleagues rounded up 114 children at 33 months, along with their mothers. The team assessed the security of the child-mother relationships, and then asked each parent to discuss their child’s temperament, including his or her social fearfulness and proneness to anger. Six months later, the team paired each child according to gender and had them interact in observational settings for three sessions over the course of a month.

The differences were dramatic and obvious. Securely attached kids, those being the ones whose relationships with Mom were strongest, were decidedly better at social interactions than the kids with weaker bonds. They responded more favorably to their peers, even when the other child was anger-prone. On the second and third visits, however, the favorable behavior started to wear off. Kids that were normally well-adjusted started becoming controlling themselves, apparently to match the other child’s behavior.

To the researchers, this reflected a mix of factors that determine how well a child gets along with any given peer. Secure attachment, the partner’s temperament, and sense of familiarity between the two kids all contributed to how well a child would behave. This is important to understand because it means parental bonds aren’t the only things keeping halos from becoming horns. Anger is contagious. But what protects a child from immediately mirroring that behavior is a strong relationship up front.

This is a bright side for McElwain. Kids, to put it baldly, are still humans. They are impressionable and imperfect. Parents have the responsibility of making sure they’re influenced in a positive direction. For instance, “don't confuse a difficult temperament with an insecure attachment,” McElwain said. “You may have a fussy infant, but if you respond to him sensitively, he will develop a strong bond with his parents and will likely go on to enjoy positive, close relationships with others.”

 

Source: McElwain N, Holland A, Engle J, Ogolsky B. Getting acquainted: Actor and partner effects of attachment and temperament on young children’s peer behavior. Developmental Psychology. 2014.