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How Supportive Parenting Impacts Your Child's Brain

The importance of parental love and warmth to children’s emotional wellbeing is widely accepted. It makes sense that a loving childhood may protect children from developing mental illnesses later in life.  A recent study by experts at Washington University illustrates why good parenting skills and parent wellbeing is so important that it can even affect the size of an important part of our brain – the hippocampus.

What is the Function of the Hippocampus?

The hippocampus is in the temporal lobe of the brain – near and behind the temples. Although neuroscientists continue to discover new things about how the brain works, we know for example, that:

  • the hippocampus plays a key role in forming new memories and probably also for retrieving longer term memories ; that’s why it is important for learning (Alzheimer’s disease affects the hippocampus and then other parts of the brain);
  • the size of the hippocampus is related to more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and major depression – smaller hippocampi are often observed in people with these illnesses; and
  • the hippocampus has a role to play in how we react to stress.

What Did the Study Show about Maternal Support for Children

Only mothers and their children were included in this study – that’s why the term ‘maternal support’ is used - but the results could apply to any main caregiver of a young child. Researchers annually assessed the children’s psychiatric wellbeing,  and measured mothers’ ability to nurture and support their children. By watching how mothers helped their three to five year old children during a mildly stressful task, researchers assessed how supportive or non-supportive the mothers were in helping their children cope with stress.  The stressful or ‘waiting’ task was waiting for eight minutes before opening a brightly wrapped gift placed within arm’s reach.

Several years later, the sizes of the children’s hippocampi were measured, and researchers found that children with more supportive mothers had a significantly larger hippocampus.  Of course, the researchers were careful to account for other reasons that affect size, (including gender) and still found this difference in the children’s brains. These results applied to the pre-schoolers who did not already have symptoms of depression. In pre-schoolers who already had symptoms of depression, maternal support made only a very small difference.

Why is the Size of the Hippocampus Important?

The size of a hippocampus is called ‘hippocampal volume’.  There have been studies in animals and humans linking hippocampal volume with the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimers and depression. And some studies have linked smaller hippocampal volume with a higher risk of major depression and a higher susceptibility to stress-related disorders in teenagers.   

Dr Joan Luby from the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University and her colleagues, explain that because the hippocampus is “a brain region central to memory, emotion regulation and stress modulation” we know it’s very important to our children’s emotional wellbeing.  Simply put: we know that in the case of the hippocampus, size matters

What Does This Study Tell Us about Parenting Skills and Emotional Intelligence?

The size of our hippocampus is only moderately affected by our genes. So the results of this study cannot be explained by suggesting that the children with the bigger ‘hippos’ inherited these from their 'big hippo' mothers who would be more likely to be emotionally warm and nurturing.

By showing a significant relationship between a child’s brain development and warm, supportive parenting, this research is a reminder about how important it is for us to support the emotional wellbeing and parenting skills of parents, primary caregivers and early childhood educators. Being skilled at tuning into children’s emotions and responding in a supportive and emotionally intelligent way, is potentially life-changing for a child’s emotional wellbeing and brain development.  As Dr Luby and colleagues emphasise: “early parenting support … is directly related to healthy development of a key brain region known to impact cognitive functioning and emotion regulation” and so opens up an opportunity to “impact the development of children in a powerful and positive fashion.” The research provides further support for the idea that policy makers should invest in parenting and teaching programs that include emotional intelligence skills, and invest in community-based programs that are able to support parent’s own emotional wellbeing.

Dr Charles Raison, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona succinctly explains: “We underestimate our power as parents at our children’s peril … one generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world.”