A new brain imaging study suggests that a strong parental bond can override some of the negative effects of a stressful childhood — such as living in poverty or experiencing violence — by changing how kids perceive the environmental cues that help them distinguish between what’s safe or dangerous.
To investigate the impact of the caregiver relationship, a research team from Emory School of Medicine in Georgia used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe activity in the amygdala, a key area of the brain that processes fear and emotion.
For the study, children ages 8 to 13 were shown a series of photos of adult faces that were either emotionally neutral or expressing fear.
The findings show that the amygdalae of children with a history of violence in their lives grew more active in response to both types of faces, which suggests that these children may engage in emotional fight-or-flight responses even for social cues that are not particularly threatening. This may be an adaptive response to growing up in an unpredictable or dangerous environment.
In children who hadn’t experienced violence, amygdalae were more active only in response to the fearful faces.
In another part of the experiment, the children and their mothers were asked to work together on a challenging Etch-a-Sketch task, while the researchers rated the mothers’ expressions during the interaction. Then they had the children look at photos of faces.
Among younger kids (ages 8 to 10) whose mothers had been more encouraging during the experiment, the amygdalae showed a decrease over time in response to the fearful faces. This suggests that in young children, the relationship with a mother affects the brain’s response to potential environmental threats. The same effect wasn’t found in older children.
The findings build on earlier research by the same research team, which established that the physical distance between young children and their mothers can influence how the children assess danger.
In that study, younger children who were physically closer to their mothers were better able to differentiate between safe and threatening stimuli. Once again, this effect wasn’t found in older children.
The findings indicate that even if a child grows up in a stressful environment, parental relationships can protect them, says study co-leader Jennifer Stevens who conducted the study with Tanja Jovanovic.
“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,” she says.