The health effects of sensitive, responsive parenting

© 2011 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

When we talk about the benefits of sensitive, responsive parenting, we often focus on emotional and cognitive outcomes.

Research suggests that kids raised by warm, nurturing parents develop better emotional regulation, more empathy, and more advanced reasoning skills. They may even test with higher IQs.

But there may be powerful health benefits too. Particularly for kids growing up in otherwise adverse environments.

To see what I mean, consider the stress of children of lower socioeconomic status, or SES.

These kids experience higher daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which increases their risk of developing metabolic syndrome--a whole package of medical problems that include obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Stress 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 the system that regulates inflammation in the body, they found that kids of lower socioeconomic status were more likely to develop a “pro-inflammatory phenotype."

Such a phenotype puts the individual at higher risk for developing inflammatory diseases like atherosclerosis, autoimmune disorders, and cancer (Miller and Chen 2007).

Can parents protect kids from the physiological effects of stress?

It makes sense.

Sensitive, responsive parents make children feel safe. They make kids less suspicious of other people, and therefore more relaxed.

This may reduce long-term wear and tear on the body caused by physiological stress (Chen et al 2011). And by teaching their kids how to regulate their own emotions, parents may help children cope with stressors (Repetti et al 2002).

So Chen and Miller have turned their attention to the health effects of parenting on children of lower socioeconomic status.

In one study, Chen and her colleagues asked 53 healthy young adults (who grew up under low SES conditions) about their parents. Study volunteers who expressed the most warmth toward their mothers showed fewer signs of systemic inflammation (Chen et al 2011).

In a second study, Miller and his team explored the effects of parental warmth and sensitivity on the development of metabolic syndrome.

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?"

Next, the researchers examined participants for symptoms of metabolic syndrome (like “apple"-shaped central obesity, high blood pressure, and a bad cholesterol profile).

As expected, people who grew up in families of low socioeconomic status (SES) 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 mothers.

Among kids with the most nurturing mothers, there was no correlation between SES and poor health status.

To 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?

Surprisingly, 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?

Not exactly.

These 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?

So there are important questions for future studies to address.

But in the meantime, there is evidence from other types of research, evidence supportive of the idea that nurturing parents can act as a buffer against the long-term effects of childhood stress.

For instance, experiments on nonhuman animals suggest that the behavior of family members can have a dramatic impact on physical outcomes.

Cross-fostering experiments on rats have demonstrated that individuals develop lower levels of stress reactivity if they were raised by highly responsive mothers (Francis et al 1999; Meaney 2001). In experiments on zebra finches, Pat Monaghan and her colleagues found that birds with highly reactive, "stressed out" temperaments lived longer when paired with calmer, laid-back mates (Pat Monaghan et al 2012).

And new, longitudinal studies of humans are supportive as well. As I note in this blog post, a recent fMRI study suggests that sensitive, responsive parents can protect children from the brain-shrinking effects of toxic stress (Luby et al 2013). And research tracking babies exposed to prenatal stressors found that infants developed normally if their mothers exposed them to lots of physical affection (Sharp et al 2012).

More information

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 Psychiatry. 16(7):729-37.

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.

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 proinflammatory phenotype in adolescence. Psychosom Med. 69(5):402-9.

Miller 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. Psychological Science.

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.

Repetti RL, Taylor SE and Seeman TE. 2002 Risky families: Family social environments and the mental and physical health of offspring. Psychological Bulletin 128: 330-366.

Content of "The health benefits of sensitive, responsive parenting" last modified 9/11

Image by semacc / istock