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Strong parental relationships can help children and teens cope with stress

Researchers say the link is strongest between parents and younger children

Photo (c) goodmoments - Fotolia
Though many feelings and experiences from childhood carry over into adulthood, particularly those that are traumatic or stressful, a new study found that a strong parental figure can help allay those feelings over the long term.

Researchers from the Emory School of Medicine explored the way a parental figure, or different parenting styles, can affect children’s responses to stress, though the results were most promising for younger children.

“Interventions such as parent training designed to help parents respond positively to young children, might be especially important in situations that are really challenging or where there are low resources,” said researcher Jennifer Stevens.

Managing stress

The researchers performed a two-part experiment, with one part focusing solely on the children’s responses and the other focusing on mothers and their children working together. In both trials, the researchers used an fMRI machine to evaluate changes in the amygdala -- the part of the brain that processes fear and emotions.

In the mother/child part of the experiment, the researchers had the pairs work on an Etch-a-Sketch project and then had the children rate their mothers’ facial expressions over the course of the project. Afterwards, the children were shown pictures of adults making various facial expressions.

For the younger children in the experiment (aged eight through 10), their mothers’ reactions and responses affected their brain’s response to fear. The children were more likely to have a delayed response to the faces that were considered fearful when their mothers’ were more patient and positive with them during the Etch-a-Sketch project.

Though this result wasn’t the same for the older group of participants (aged 11-13), it shows that for younger children, their parents can help determine their response to fear, and even help to make them less fearful.

In the other experiment, children were shown pictures of adults, again showing a wide variety of facial expressions.

The researchers found that the children who hadn’t experienced anything traumatic in their lives reacted only to the faces that were scary or threatening. However, for the children who had experienced poverty or violence, their brains gave off the fear response for pictures of faces that were both threatening and non-threatening.

Overall, the study shows that regardless of the circumstances children grew up in, the bond with their parents can shape how they view stressful or potentially harmful situations.

Parental influence

Parents can influence their children throughout their lives in more ways than they realize. A recent study found that harsh parenting can affect children’s performance in school.

Children raised in stricter households were found to place a greater emphasis on their friend groups instead of their school work, and both boys and girls were at a greater risk of dropping out of school and engaging in risky behaviors.

“In our study, harsh parenting was related to lower educational attainment through a set of complex cascading processes that emphasized present-oriented behaviors at the cost of future-oriented educational goals,” said lead author Rochelle F. Hentges.

Similarly, researchers found that moms’ lifestyles, particularly where weight loss or gain is concerned, can affect their children’s habits; however, dads appear to be off the hook.

The study found that in households where the mom lost weight -- even slightly -- the children had lower body mass indices (BMIs). The inverse was also true -- when moms gained weight, the children also tended to have extra weight. However, children weren’t affected by their dads’ weight fluctuations. 

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