Predictable and consistent parental behavior is key to optimal brain development in children

Scientists have long known that the experiences you have during infancy and childhood playing an important role in shaping how your brain matures and how you behave as an adult. But it was hard to figure out why this is happening.

In the past 15 years, my team and I have studied the development of children’s brains to determine which aspects of early life experiences influence brain maturation. In our recently published article By summarizing our findings across multiple animal and human studies, we found that unpredictable or inconsistent parental behavior can disrupt the development of a child’s emotional brain circuitry. This can lead to an increased risk of mental illness and substance abuse later in the child’s life.

Predictability and consistency

To tackle the challenge of figuring out which signals affect how the brain’s emotional systems develop, we took clues from how the brain’s sensory systems, such as vision and hearing, develop. Environmental signals are important for sensory development. For example, if a baby can’t see well because of a severe lazy eye, they can develop lifelong vision problems. Likewise, a baby who is unable to distinguish the patterns and sequences of everyday sound due to frequent ear infections can develop lifelong hearing problems.

Since parents are often the primary source of the information a baby and young child receive from their environment, we thought it would be reasonable to assume that parental cues would be crucial for brain development. Previous research Recent decades have found that a caregiver’s behavior and responsiveness to their child’s needs were important to the child’s emotional growth. Failure to respond, such as through neglect, was associated with an increased risk of emotional distress later in life.

Attachment theory holds that a strong bond with a primary caregiver at an early age is critical to child development.

While many studies have focused on the effects of “positive” or “negative” parental behavior on children’s brain development, researchers have paid little attention to patterns of behavior, or a parent’s predictability and consistency. A predictable and consistent parent responds the same way to new situations, such as when their child takes a light fall or asks for a new toy. In the long run, predictability also means a child knows who will pick it up from school and when to expect lunch, dinner, or bedtime.

We first conducted our research in mice and rats to control how the mothers behaved towards their pups by limiting the amount of material available in the environment for nest building, and altering their activity patterns towards their offspring. We then did research in peopleobserve how mothers behaved in structured play sessions and how the patterns of their actions influenced the emotional and cognitive development of their children.

To quantify maternal behavior in these sessions, we measured the extent to which one behavior predicted the next† For example, the likelihood that a mother would talk to her and show her child toys was a good predictor of how often she would pick up her child. We also controlled for other aspects of parenting and environment, such as socioeconomic status. We assessed the development of children and puppies by administering cognitive and emotional tests, as well as behavioral questionnaires for the children.

In all of our animal and human studies, we found that predictable parental behavior patterns led to better emotional and cognitive functioning in their children later in life. While our studies have focused primarily on mothers, it is highly likely that the same principles apply to fathers as well.

Patterns of parental behavior are just as important to a child’s brain development as the quality of the behavior.
Xavier Mouton Photographie/UnsplashCC BY-SA

Nurturing your child’s brain growth

Our findings suggest that it is not just ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ parenting that influences a child’s development. It is equally important to a child’s emotional brain development that their parents feed them in predictable and consistent ways.

There are many setbacks beyond the parents’ control that can affect a child’s development, such as poverty, war, and migration. However, being aware of the role predictable and consistent behavior plays in brain development can help parents create an optimal environment for their child as they grow emotionally.

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