New research finds that waiting to start a family until you’re older may have a positive impact on the behavior of your children as they grow.
It’s well documented that fertility begins declining for women around the age of 35 and that children born to older mothers often face an increased risk of genetic mutations that can contribute to conditions like Down syndrome.
Research has also linked the age of a child’s father at birth to an increase in neurological and behavioral conditions such as autism and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even a greater chance of developing bipolar disorder or psychosis.
But the news isn’t all bad for older parents. In fact, recent research has found that when those clinical diagnoses are accounted for and removed from the equation, the children of older parents actually exhibit fewer behavioral problems overall.
The findings showed that older parents reported fewer externalizing behavior problems among their children, and parents and teachers both reported fewer persisting behavioral problems. This was even after accounting for socioeconomic status — meaning that the findings weren’t just because older parents were more established in their career fields or more comfortable economically.
But the latest data isn’t necessarily indicative of a pure cause and effect relationship between older parents and behavioral struggles, according to relationship and parenting expert Wendy Walsh, PhD.
“There are a couple of things to consider when looking at these studies,” Walsh told Healthline. “First of all, they are pulling data from multiple different studies. That’s not the same as going out, finding a cohort group, giving them a pre-test and a post-test and looking for this one specific thing.”
She also said that self-reporting can be notoriously biased. “When parents are reporting, there is going to be over-reporting of favorable things. And the older a parent is, the smarter they are about knowing to over-report favorable behavior.”
Or, she hypothesized, it could also be that older parents are simply more patient and less likely to notice or care about some of the behavioral concerns younger parents might report.
“So we can discount the reports from fathers, mothers, and children themselves,” she explained. “Because the truth is, none of us really know ourselves or our lives well enough to be able to report objectively. The teachers are really the only reliable reporters here.”
Still, she thinks the results shouldn’t be discounted entirely.
“It is promising, and it makes sense,” she said. “The longer you wait, the smarter you are, the more education you have, maybe the better your finances are, the more resources you have, the less likely your kid is going to be acting out.”
It’s possible that’s why this latest research lines up with previous studies that have found fewer behavioral, social, and emotional difficulties for children born to older mothers.
Increased patience, resources, and maybe even a greater gratitude over being able to parent at all could be contributing to these positive outcomes.
It’s a theory Nancy S. Molitor, PhD, the clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, shares.
“One thing with older parents is, you don’t know what their past history is in terms of losses. Is this their first child? Their fifth attempt? They may have been trying for a long time for this chance,” she explained.
She also said that older parents are, in general more comfortable with themselves.
“They are going to typically have more self-awareness and more insight into their own strengths, as well as their own weaknesses,” she said.
Molitor explained that older parents may also be more willing to ask for help, or admit that something may be wrong earlier on. This would make room for early intervention and assistance with getting any potential behavioral issues on track sooner.
These are lessons that all parents, young or old, could potentially learn from. And that’s the takeaway both Molitor and Walsh want parents to have from studies like this.
“Stop fighting with your kids and start listening to them,” Walsh said.
She explained that doesn’t mean not shaping their behavior, because that’s the job of the parent, to shape their child’s behavior so they can fit into society. “But if you can understand the pressures on children, and understand the obstacles along the way, you can better help them to find their way to good behavior.”
Walsh recognizes that may not be easy for all parents. “Since we’ve gotten rid of the spare the rod mentality, there are many parents who are at a loss for psychological tools to help shape their children.”
According to her, though, it’s pretty simple. “Water what you want to grow, and ignore the weeds.”
In this analogy, the weeds are bad behavior. “Unless it’s dangerous, don’t feed the bad stuff. Instead, reward the good behavior. Because what happens is parents are so busy, the only time the kid gets any attention at all is when they behave poorly — and that only works to reinforce that bad behavior you’re trying to steer them away from.
So focus on the good behavior instead, Walsh recommends, and watch it grow.
“This works with husbands too, by the way,” she joked.
For Molitor, the other important takeaway from this study is that it’s never too late to become a parent. “If you’re wanting children but you’re afraid you might be too old, I think you can look at these results as promising. I wouldn’t let age be a barrier. There’s lots of ways to become a parent.”