Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Power of Sensitive Parenting

In recent days, I've been reading some amazing research about the long-reaching and profound effects that sensitive parenting (or lack there of) can have on children. This may not seem surprisingly, of course. We all know that parents are the first and perhaps most profound influence on their children's lives. Recently, however, with advances in neuroimaging and long-term longitudinal research, researchers are able to see even more clearly the impact of sensitive parenting. A couple of areas of influence have really grabbed my attention: brain structure and function, and long-term health. Let's looks at each of these areas and how they may relate to early sensitive parenting.

Brain Structure and Function

It is well-known that mothers suffering from depression are at greater risk for less sensitive/attuned parenting practices. Some research has linked this less sensitive parenting (via mothers' depression) to the development of larger amygdalas in children. The amygdala is a part of the brain that helps control emotion regulation. Thus, less sensitive parenting may actually change the structure of children's brains. That is amazing when you think about it--that in environmental influence (parenting) may have the power to affect how the brain develops. Children with larger amygdalas may have a more difficult time with emotion regulation, which is a key factor in the development of attention and self-control.

Long-Term Health

Research has well-established that children growing up in an environment of low socioeconomic status (SES) are at higher risk for numerous health problems. Although part of the reason for this is obvious (e.g., less access to health care and healthy food), another big factor is stress. Kids growing up in a low SES environment typically encounter a great deal of stress and this stress detrimentally affects their health.
This stress also makes it very difficult for parents in a low SES environment to parent sensitively. The good news, however, is that those children whose parents are able to maintain a sensitive, attentive environment reap wonderful long-term benefits. New research is showing that sensitive parenting actually buffers the negative effects of low SES to the point that it's even more beneficial for some health factors that moving up the SES ladder. Turns out the old saying, "You can't buy love" is more true than we realized. 

So with all these positive benefits of sensitive parenting, you may wonder what "sensitive parenting" really means. Contrary to what some may think, sensitive parenting does not mean giving in to your child's every whim or not enforcing rules. Sensitive parenting is often called authoritative parenting. This approach to parenting involves setting firm boundaries but also emphasizes explaining the reason for rules and meeting children's emotional needs. This type of parenting is in contrast to permissive and authoritarian parenting approaches. These parenting styles were originally categorized by researcher Diane Baumrind over 40 years ago and they still have relevance today. As you may have guessed, permissive parents fail to set limits or boundaries on their child's behavior. On the other end of the spectrum, authoritarian parents run their homes like a dictator and expect children to obey strict rules with little emotional support or explanation. Based on these categories, it is easy to see why authoritative parenting is associated with the best emotional and physical outcomes for children. It serves as a middle ground between being too permissive and overly strict. In this environment, children come to know what is expected of them but are also given the emotional support, empathy, and skills to meet these expectations. 

Now this is not to say that an authoritative parenting approach is easy. As is often the case, the middle approach between two extreme ends of a spectrum is the most difficult. Sometimes it may seem easier to give up and just let your child do whatever they like or bear down and insist on blind obedience. As we have seen with recent research, however, by sticking with authoritative parenting your children will ultimately reap the greatest benefits. 

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