(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists have long known that experiences in infancy and childhood play an important role in shaping the brain and behavior in adulthood. But figuring out why this is happening has not been easy.
For the past 15 years, my team and I have been studying the development of children’s brains to determine which aspects of early life experiences influence brain maturation. In a recent paper summarizing the results of numerous animal and human studies, we found that unpredictable or inconsistent parental behavior can disrupt the development of a child’s emotional circuitry. This can lead to an increased risk of mental illness and substance abuse later in a child’s life.
Predictability and Consistency
To solve the problem of finding out which signals influence the development of the emotional systems of the brain, we took advantage of how sensory systems in the brain, such as vision and hearing, develop.
Environmental cues are important for sensory development. For example, if an infant cannot see adequately due to a strong lazy eye, they may develop a lifelong vision deficit. Similarly, an infant who cannot make out the patterns and sequences of everyday sounds due to frequent ear infections may develop hearing problems for life.
Since parents are often the main source of information that an infant and young child receives from the environment, we decided to assume that parental signals would be critical for brain development.
Previous studies spanning decades have shown that the behavior of caregivers and how they respond to a child’s needs are of great importance for the child’s emotional development. Lack of response, for example as a result of neglect, has been associated with an increased risk of emotional problems later in life.
While many studies have focused on the impact of “positive” or “negative” parental behavior on a child’s brain development, researchers have paid little attention to parental patterns, predictability, and consistency.
A predictable and consistent parent is one who reacts in the same way to new situations, such as when their child falls down or asks for a new toy. In the long run, predictability also means that the child knows who will pick him up from school and when he can expect lunch, dinner or sleep.
We first conducted studies in mice and rats to be able to control the behavior of mothers towards their young, by limiting the amount of material available in the environment for nest building, by changing their behavior towards their offspring.
We then conducted human studies looking at how mothers behave during structured play sessions and how their behavioral patterns affect the emotional and cognitive development of their children.
To quantify the behavior of mothers in these sessions, we measured the extent to which one behavior predicted another. For example, the likelihood that a mother would talk to her baby and show him a toy was a good predictor of how often she would pick up her baby.
We also controlled for other aspects of upbringing and environment, such as socioeconomic status. We assessed the development of children and puppies by conducting cognitive and emotional tests, as well as child behavior questionnaires.
In all of our animal and human studies, we found that predictable parenting behaviors led to better emotional and cognitive functioning for their children later in life. Although our research has focused primarily on mothers, it is likely that the same principles apply to fathers.
Your child’s brain development
Our results show that it is not only “positive” or “negative” parenting that influences a child’s development. Equally important to the emotional development of a child’s brain is that parents care for them in a predictable and consistent manner.
There are many circumstances beyond the parents’ control that can affect a child’s development, such as poverty, war or migration. However, understanding the role of predictable and consistent behavior in brain development can help parents create the optimal environment for their child as they grow emotionally.
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