Scientists have long known that the experiences you have during infancy and childhood play an important role in how your brain matures and how you behave as an adult. But understanding why this is happening has been difficult.
Over the past 15 years, my crew and me studied child brain development to identify aspects of early life experiences that affect brain maturation. In our recently published article Summarizing our findings across multiple animal and human studies, we found that unpredictable or inconsistent parenting behavior can disrupt the development of a child’s emotional brain circuitry. This can lead to an increased risk of mental illness and addiction later in the child’s life.
Predictability and consistency
To address the challenge of determining which signals affect the development of the brain’s emotional systems, we drew inspiration from the development of the brain’s sensory systems, such as vision and hearing.
Environmental signals are important for sensory development. For example, if an infant is unable to see properly due to severe lazy eye, they may develop lifelong visual deficits. Similarly, an infant who is unable to distinguish everyday sound patterns and sequences due to frequent ear infections may develop lifelong hearing problems.
Since parents are often the primary source of information an infant and young child receives from their environment, we thought it would be reasonable to assume that parental cues would be crucial for brain development.
Previous search over the decades have found that a caregiver’s behaviors and responsiveness to their child’s needs are important to a child’s emotional growth. Unresponsiveness, for example to neglect, was associated with an increased risk of emotional problems later in life.
While many studies have focused on the effects of “positive” or “negative” parenting behaviors on child brain development, researchers have paid little attention to patterns of behavior, or the predictability and the consistency of a parent.
A predictable and consistent parent is one who reacts to new situations, such as when their child takes a slight fall or asks for a new toy, in the same way. In the long run, predictability also means that a child knows who will be picking them up from school and when they can expect lunch, dinner or bedtime.
We first conducted our studies in mouse and rats being able to control the behavior of mothers towards their young by limiting the amount of material available in the environment for nest building, altering their activity patterns towards their offspring. We then conducted studies in peopleobserving how mothers behaved during structured play sessions and how the patterns of their actions influenced the emotional and cognitive development of their children.
To quantify maternal behaviors during these sessions, we measured the extent to which a behavior predict the next. For example, the likelihood of a mother talking to her child and showing her a toy was a good predictor of how often she would pick up her child. We also controlled for other aspects of parenthood 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 children.
In all of our animal and human studies, we have found that predictable parental behavior patterns lead to better emotional and cognitive functioning in their children later in life. Although our studies have mainly focused on mothers, it is very likely that the same principles apply to fathers as well.
Promote your child’s brain growth
Our results suggest that it is not just ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ parenting that affects a child’s development. It is equally important for the emotional development of a child’s brain that his parents feed him in a predictable and consistent way.
There are many adversities beyond a parent’s control that can impact their 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.