The health effects of sensitive, responsive parenting
© 2011-2016 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
When we hear about the benefits of responsive parenting, it's often in the context of cognitive development.
Infants learn language more rapidly when caregivers respond promptly and contingently to what babies do (Tamis-Lamonda et al 2014).
Young children develop better problem-solving ability, attention skills, and school readiness when their parents are sensitive and responsive (Landry et al
2003; Landry et al 2006; Yousafzai et al 2016).
But there may be powerful health benefits, too, particularly for kids living in neighborhoods blighted by poverty and crime.
kids experience atypical fluctuations of the stress hormone cortisol, putting them at increased risk for a variety of metabolic conditions, including obesity, cardiovascular
disease, and diabetes. Elevated cortisol levels may also "turn on" genes that cause inflammation. When
University of British Columbia psychologists Gregory Miller and Edith
Chen tested adolescents for biochemical markers of inflammation, they found that kids of lower
socioeconomic status were more likely to develop a “pro-inflammatory
Having such a phenotype increases your risk of developing inflammatory diseases like atherosclerosis, autoimmune
disorders, and cancer (Miller and Chen 2007).
Can parents protect kids from the physiological effects of stress?
The idea fits with our everyday observations. Sensitive,
responsive parents make children feel safe. They make kids less
suspicious of other people, and therefore more relaxed. Secure, relaxed children experience fewer spikes of cortisol, and when they do get stressed, they recover more quickly. In addition, by teaching their kids how to regulate
their own emotions, parents help children develop effective self-soothing mechanisms. Kids learn how to cope, even when their caregivers aren't around. Together, these factors should help protect kids from the physiological wear-and-tear caused by chronic stressors (Repetti et al 2002; Chen et al 2011).
So Chen and Miller sought to test the idea by inquiring into the early life experiences of people who grew up poor.
one study, they asked 53 healthy young adults about their family relationships. Study volunteers
who reported feelings of greater warmth toward their mothers showed fewer signs of
systemic inflammation (Chen et al 2011).
In another study, the researchers explored the effects of parental
warmth and sensitivity on the development of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of medical conditions that includes central obesity, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. The researchers asked over 1200 middle-aged Americans questions about their parents. Questions like:
- How much did your parent understand your problems and worries?
- How much time and attention did s/he give you when you needed it?
Then the researchers examined participants for symptoms of metabolic
As expected, people who grew up in low socioeconomic status (SES) households were more likely to have these symptoms. But
about 45% of the people with low SES childhoods were symptom-free. And
these symptomless people were more likely to have had nurturing
Among kids with the most nurturing mothers, there was no correlation between SES and poor health status.
put this in perspective, the researchers also tested the effects of
being upwardly mobile. If you were born relatively poor, but achieved
higher SES as an adult, did you enjoy better health?
the answer was no. Not when it came to symptoms of metabolic syndrome.
The researchers couldn’t detect any difference between people who stayed
poor and people who moved up the socioeconomic ladder.
Is this proof that sensitive, responsive parenting has a lasting impact on health?
studies don’t control for genetic factors. Perhaps nurturing parents
are more likely to carry genes that confer better health. Perhaps, too, the results are skewed by the participants’ inaccurate reports of their parents’ behavior. And
what about fathers? Miller and his colleagues didn’t find evidence of
any effect for nurturing dads. Just moms. Is that because the fathers in
this study were less involved with childcare? Future studies are needed to rule out alternative explanations.
in the meantime, there is other evidence to consider. For instance, experiments on nonhuman animals suggest that family interactions have a profound impact on health.
When researchers have cross-fostered rat pups -- assigned them to be raised by adoptive mothers -- they have found strong evidence for the power of affectionate care. Rats raised by highly responsive mothers show less stress reactivity as adults (Francis et al 1999; Meaney 2001). And in experiments
on zebra finches, investigators found that a bird's lifespan depended on the temperament of its companions. Anxious, easily "stressed out" finches lived longer when they when they were paired with calmer, more resilient companions (Pat Monaghan et
There are also intriguing observational studies tracking human children over the short-term. As I explain in this blog post, an fMRI study suggests that sensitive, responsive parents can protect kids from the brain-shrinking effects of toxic stress (Luby et al 2013). In addition, research on babies exposed to prenatal stress found that 7-month-old infants showed signs of better emotional regulation if their mothers had exposed them to lots of physical affection (Sharp et al 2012).
Follow-up studies confirm the effect lasts into the toddler years, and researchers have connected the phenomenon to epigenetics, or long-term alterations of DNA function (Sharp et al 2015; Pickles et al 2016). Early life stress can silence genes that help regulate an individual's stress response system. But tactile affection seems to reverse the process (Murgatroyd et al 2016).
If true, scientists may have uncovered a key mechanism for parental responsiveness and affection to impact health. But regardless of the mechanisms, researchers are amassing an increasingly impressive case for the health benefits of responsive, sensitive parenting.
For more information about parental warmth and child outcomes, see my article about the
effects of sensitive, responsive parenting.
To read more about reasoning with children, see my article on the
authoritative parenting style.
References: Health benefits of sensitive, responsive parenting
Chen E, Miller GE, and Parker KJ. 2011. Psychological stress in
childhood and susceptibility to the chronic diseases of aging: Moving
toward a model of behavioral and biological mechanisms. Psychol Bull.
2011 Jul 25. [Epub ahead of print]
Chen E, Miller GE, Kobor MS,
Cole SW. 2011. Maternal warmth buffers the effects of low early-life
socioeconomic status on pro-inflammatory signaling in adulthood. Mol
Francis D, Diorio J, Liu D, Meaney MJ. 1999. Nongenomic transmission across generations of maternal behavior and stress responses in the rat. Science. 286(5442):1155-8.
Landry SH, Smith KE, and
Swank PR. 2003. The importance of parenting during early childhood for
school-age development. Dev Neuropsychol. 24(2-3):559-91.
SH, Smith KE, Swank PR. 2006. Responsive parenting: establishing early
foundations for social, communication, and independent problem-solving
skills. Dev Psychol. 42(4):627-42.
Luby J, Belden A, Botteron K, Marrus N, Harms MP, Babb C, Nishino T, Barch D. 2013. The effects of poverty on childhood brain development: the mediating effect of caregiving and stressful life events. JAMA Pediatr. 167(12):1135-42.
Meaney MJ. 2001. Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations. Annu Rev Neurosci. 24:1161-92.
Miller G and Chen E. 2007.
Unfavorable socioeconomic conditions in early life presage expression of
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GE, Lachman ME, Chen E, Gruenevald TL, Karlamangla AS, and Seeman TE.
2011. Pathways to resilience: Maternal nurturance as a buffer against
the effects of childhood poverty on metabolic syndrome at midlife.
Monaghan P, Heidinger BJ, D'Alba L, Evans NP, and Spencer KA. 2012. For better or worse: reduced adult lifespan following early-life stress is transmitted to breeding partners. Proc Biol Sci. 279(1729):709-14.
Murgatroyd C, Quinn JP, Sharp HM, Pickles A, Hill J. Effects of prenatal and postnatal depression, and maternal stroking, at the glucocorticoid receptor gene. Transl Psychiatry. 5:e560.
Pickles A, Sharp H, Hellier J, Hill J. 2016. Prenatal anxiety, maternal stroking in infancy, and symptoms of emotional and behavioral disorders at 3.5 years. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2016 Jul 27. [Epub ahead of print].
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Risky families: Family social environments and the mental and physical
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children: outcomes predicted from pre- and postnatal programming
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Sharp H, Pickles A, Meaney M, Marshall K, Tibu F, Hill J. 2012. Frequency
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depression on infant behavioural and physiological outcomes. PLoS One. 7(10):e45446.
Tamis-LaMonda CS, Kurchirko Y, and Song L. 2014. Why is infant language learning facilitated by parental responsiveness? Current Directions in Psychological Science23(2):
Yousafzai AK, Obradović J, Rasheed MA, Rizvi A, Portilla XA, Tirado-Strayer N, Siyal S3, Memon U. 2016. Effects of responsive
stimulation and nutrition interventions on children's development and
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Content of "The health benefits of sensitive, responsive parenting" last modified 8/16
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