The protective role of parental vigilance in the link between risky childhood environments and health

Soc Sci Med. 2023 Jan:317:115593. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2022.115593. Epub 2022 Dec 5.


Growing up in a risky environment is associated with poor lifespan physical and mental health. However, promotive factors that have protective or compensatory effects (i.e., buffer against negative outcomes or promote positive ones in the context of risk) allow individuals to remain healthy despite adverse upbringings. Parental vigilance, including parents' efforts to set boundaries and limitations and/or monitor and have knowledge of children's daily lives, has been shown to buffer and protect against negative health outcomes among individuals who grow up in risky environments. Conversely, some aspects of parental vigilance have been shown to be maladaptive for, or unrelated to, health among individuals who are raised in low-risk environments. The current study leveraged longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 97 (NLSY97; to explore the link between environmental risk in adolescence and indices of physical and mental health in young adulthood, and whether parental vigilance (limit-setting and knowledge) buffered these associations (n = 4829). Results indicated that childhood environmental risk predicted a greater likelihood of experiencing physical health limitations at age 29 but was not significantly associated with mental health symptoms at approximately age 34. Further, there was evidence that parental limit-setting (but not knowledge) buffered the relation between childhood risk and physical health limitations, such that the association between risk and physical limitations became slightly less pronounced at greater levels of parental limit-setting. Additionally, maternal knowledge was associated with fewer mental health symptoms in young adulthood among all participants. Results highlight the importance of parental limit-setting in reducing physical health consequences associated with childhood risk and suggest that there may be long-term mental health benefits of maternal knowledge of adolescents, regardless of childhood risk exposure.

Keywords: Childhood risk; Mental health; Parental knowledge; Parental limit-setting; Physical health limitations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Family
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Mental Health
  • Parents* / psychology
  • Young Adult