New study reveals stress effects on mother, child

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A study has revealed the effects of the stress of parenting in the brains of both mothers and their children.

The researchers analyzed the brain activity of 31 pairs of mother and child from Singapore while they were watching children’s animation clips together.

They found that mothers who reported higher levels of parenting stress had less synchrony in brain activity with their child (all aged around 3 years old) than those who reported lower levels of parenting stress.

The specific brain region monitored for synchrony was the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with the ability to understand others’ point of view.

In general, when the parent and child show highly similar brain activity in the same area(s) of the brain (i.e. greater synchrony), it suggests that both are highly tuned in to each other’s emotional states.

Parenting stress occurs when the demands of parenting exceed the coping resources that a parent perceives they have available. Excessive parenting stress can block maternal sensitivity, lead to reactions that punish the child and negatively affect the parent-child relationship for the long term.

Senior author of the research Assistant Professor Gianluca Esposito, from the School of Social Sciences who leads the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab (SAN-Lab) at NTU Singapore, said, “Our study shows that parenting stress may very well weaken mother-child communication early in the process of social interaction. Our observations likely stem from the stressed mother’s reduced ability to share her child’s perspective. This inability to appreciate the child’s viewpoint may reduce the quality of parental engagement and undermine the mother-child relationship in the long run.”

The study, done in collaboration with researchers from the United States’ National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Italy’s University of Trento and University of Padova, was published in Nature Scientific Reports in August 2019.

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