Strong family means better social and emotional wellbeing and higher reading scores for Indigenous children in Footprints in Time

Written by the Footprints in Time team from the Centre for Longitudinal Data, Australian Government Department of Social Services

It’s no surprise that relationships matter for parent and child mental health, but good family relationships may also matter for learning to read. Footprints in Time (the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children) shows that, not only do the relationships and support of parents and carers relate to children’s social and emotional wellbeing, but they also relate to children’s reading proficiency. The study is now visiting the families of more than 1200 Indigenous children across Australia for its seventh year.

Relationships with family and friends

Our Indigenous interviewers ask about relationships with friends and family using an adaptation of the Strong Souls assessment tool from the Menzies Aboriginal Birth Cohort study. Parents and carers respond to statements such as, “You have a strong family who help each other” and “When you’re sad or upset you have a person you can talk to.” We find that the parents and carers with stronger relationships have better social and emotional wellbeing and their children tend to have fewer social, emotional and behavioural difficulties than the parents and carers who did not have such good relationships.

Results from 2011 also show that children’s reading scores are higher when parents have better mental health and when parents have higher Strong Souls scores (FaHCSIA, 2013, page 42). 

Relationships with partners

Many parents and carers in the study raise their children without a partner (41% in 2010). The children of mothers with partners do not necessarily have better outcomes than the children of unpartnered mothers. Footprints in Time shows that social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, prosocial and reading scores for study children of mothers with partners are no different to the children of mothers without partners. 

Sole parenting is tough, but good relationships with extended family and friends help mothers and children do well. Looking at the nearly 700 children of partnered mothers in the study, we find that the quality of the mother-partner relationship matters for children’s outcomes just as much as the mother-child relationship. Good, supportive relationships between mothers and partners in the study are related to:

  • decreased child social and emotional difficulties;
  • higher reading scores for children;
  • greater parenting self-efficacy for mothers; and
  • better social and emotional wellbeing for mothers.

Cultural relevance

Relationships and relatedness (Martin, 2005) are important values for many parents and carers of Indigenous children. Nearly two thirds of the parents and carers in Footprints in Time rated “knowing family history and heritage” as one of their top five aspects of culture to pass on to their child (FaHCSIA, 2012, p56). 

The following quotes are from fathers in Footprints in Time who were asked what they wanted for their children (apart from health and happiness):

 “To [be] successful socially and academically,
 this will lead to happiness and healthiness.” 

“To know her whole family and to know her cultural history."

 “Good friends, close relationships.” 

Practitioners are often asked to ‘build on strengths’. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families experience high levels of disadvantage and multiple major life events. However, strong relationships with a partner, family and friends provide support to cope with these stressors and help mothers and children do well.


Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. (2013). Footprints in Time: The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children. Report from Wave 4. Canberra: FaHCSIA.

Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. (2012). Footprints in Time: The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children—Key summary report from Wave 3. Canberra: FaHCSIA.

Martin, Karen L. (2003). Ways of Knowing, Ways of Being and Ways of Doing: a theoretical framework and methods for Indigenous re-search and Indigenist research. Voicing Dissent, New Talents 21C: Next Generation Australian Studies, Journal of Australian Studies, 76, pp. 203-214. Accessed from