It turns out nurturing your young child may help them regulate stress

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Photo by Spec-ta-cles, used under Creative Commons license.

I am super intrigued by this article, Nurturing Moms May Boost Children’s Brain Growth. Researchers are positing that children with nurturing mothers may experience brain growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that processes memories and helps you deal with stress.

Note: they totally DID NOT include dads in the story, which is something I’d love to know about — does a nurturing father help in the same way?

When the children were between 7 and 10 years old, the researchers brought them in for brain imaging. The scans showed that those whose mothers had been most supportive several years earlier had a significantly larger hippocampus — on both sides of the brain — nearly 10% larger than the same regions in children with less empathetic mothers.

The hippocampus is crucial for recording and processing memory, a key function that predicts kids’ learning and performance in school. The region is also believed to be important in regulating stress, but is threatened when the body’s levels of stress hormones get too high. Previous research suggests that the effects of stress hormones on the hippocampus may help explain the link between stress and depression: when toxic levels of stress hormones cause shrinkage of the hippocampus, depression may result. During recovery, the region sprouts new cells.

In the current study, the link between brain growth and maternal support seen in mentally healthy children did not reach statistical significance in those with early life depression. What this means is still unclear. It could be that good mothering is not powerful enough to counter the brain effects of depression. Or, looked at another way, it could mean that a mom’s nurture helps prevent early depression from doing even more damage. Perhaps it may also protect against depression that occurs later in life. The study wasn’t able to measure these effects.

What the research did show is that in normal children, having a supportive mom is “directly related to healthy development of a key brain region known to impact cognitive functioning and emotion regulation,” as the authors put it.

So… nurturing mom = mellow kid? We’ll see. To me, an interesting sub-question is the definition of “nurturing” — what does this mean and why? I’d love to know what you guys think! Check out the article and get back to me.

Comments on It turns out nurturing your young child may help them regulate stress

    • There is a link in the article to the published study, from there you can check out the “methods and materials” section which includes the measures used for “maternal support.” It specifically cites that while caregivers filled out paperwork for the study, children had a wrapped gift placed in front of them which they had to wait to open. Each time the caregiver used “specific types of supportive strategies” to help the child control themselves, the researchers counted it as a unit of measurement. Of course, it is presumed that the caregiver did not know that their behavior was being measured at the time.

      So, one problem with the evidence is that the parent and child are in a public place, where behavior might be altered because of the “being watched” factor. Perhaps they were in a private room with some kind of monitoring, but the study doesn’t mention it. I don’t think it negates the results but it is something to keep in mind.

      • Thanks for reading the study and reporting back. The ways they come up to measure abstract things like maternal tendency to nurture for these studies always seem so bizarre to me.

      • That’s so odd!! So, given that basis, does it mean that if you have raised your kids to listen to you once with a rational explanation and they then don’t whinge or whine to provoke some other ‘nurturing’ response, you aren’t included as a ‘nurturing’ mum?!

  1. It’s probably completely true, but science has a way of mucking things up. What’s nurturing, and why is that nurturing are important questions. Can’t scolding, which is mentioned in the article, be a form of nurturing if it’s done sensitively?

    Two more things before I go: speaking as a father, I can do that. Also, I sincerely hope that this doesn’t become part of the “blame the mother” school of thought, so beloved of the media.


    • It’s not so much that science mucks things up, but more that the reports that report on science muck things up! (ala (I’m not saying that scientists are infallible, simply that usually the problem happens when people who aren’t so educated in science try to say what’s been found in a scientific study.

  2. While this study is interesting, I’d want to see way more studies done before any conclusions are drawn. For instance, different measure of what it means to be “nurturing”, add dads as well as moms, etc. But my biggest question is in “stress”. Does nurturing cause a decrease in stress, or would simply shielding kids from external stressors be enough to have the same effect? An interesting start, but I’d want more studies on different variables before I start changing my parenting style or stressing about making my kids depressed.

  3. Thanks for this article.

    One missing factor, whose absence quite frankly shocked me, was the element of trust. If parent says, “you can open the present when I’m done filling out this paperwork” and child knows from past experience that parent will keep the promise, child will be more apt to wait without fussing, as she knows she can trust the promise. On the flip side, if parent says the same to child and child knows from experience that parent will not keep the promise, then one could predict a outcome that is less than ideal, possibly displaying frustration, anger, temper tantrums, aggression.

    In addition, these two scenarios showcase conditioning. If child has learned that a temper tantrum will get her needs met, then that’s what child will do, and vice versa.

    This is why research is so mucky. There are so many variables that it’s hard to pinpoint them all. I think that all parents can take away an important message from this study: treat your child with respect, support her autonomy, and encourage her to make her own decisions.

  4. This is great! although I must say I find it hilarious that we humans find the need to study and prove everything that is pretty obvious even with out the study. Good, loving parents = happy, less stressed kid… seems obvious to me. I read an article recently that said they have proven that excersizing in nature is better for your mental health because there is an enzyme in soil that becomes airborne and acts as an anti-depressent…no shit! I mean who really cares about the enzyme…anyone who is the least bit self refective and has had a chance to walk in the woods and also on a treadmill knows that they feel better after being outside! But when it comes right down to it nowadays lots of us just want to know the whys and hows of pretty much everything 🙂

    • The thing is, there are lots of studies which show evidence against a lot of “common sense” and “wisdom” that we take for granted. So for every few “Well, duh” studies, there is one that can really change what we think we know about how humans work. So psychology can seem a little tricky, hard to measure, and sometimes almost pointless, but sometimes there are really useful gains. On top of that, measuring variables of “common sense” ideas can really illuminate how the balances of those things play out for people, like how too much general praise can actually make a kid less confident while specific, detailed and earned praise can make a kid more confident.

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