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Stresses of Parenting May Negatively Affect the Parent-Child Relationship

Researchers from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) revealed the effects of parenting stress in the brains of both mothers and their children.

The researchers analysed the brain activity of 31 pairs of mothers and their child (all aged around 3 years old) from Singapore while watching children’s animation clips together. Participants were given a questionnaire to qualitatively measure levels of stress.

Brain activity was measured through a non-invasive method that analyses changes in blood concentration in the brain associated with neuron behaviour. They combined the use of the caps with a recently developed method called tandem hyper scanning that simultaneously records the brain activity of two people.

The specific brain region monitored for synchrony was the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with the ability to understand others’ point of view.

The NTU research team compared the mother’s and child’s brain activity to calculate brain-to-brain synchrony and found that for those parents reporting higher levels of parenting stress, the degree of mother-child synchrony in part of the prefrontal cortex was diminished, compared to those parents reporting lower stress who had better synchrony.

Senior author of the research Assistant Professor Gianluca Esposito, from the School of Social Sciences who leads the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab (SAN-Lab) at NTU Singapore, said, “Our study shows that parenting stress may very well weaken mother-child communication early in the process of social interaction. Our observations likely stem from the stressed mother’s reduced ability to share her child’s perspective. This inability to appreciate the child’s viewpoint may reduce the quality of parental engagement and undermine the mother-child relationship in the long run.”

The paper’s first author Ms Atiqah Azhari, a PhD candidate at the SAN-Lab at NTU, said, “Our study brings us a step closer to uncovering how parenting stress weakens the mother-child relationship on a day-to-day basis. We did not expect to find a clear relationship between parenting stress and brain synchrony when the mother and child did something as simple as watching animation together. This suggests that the mother’s mental wellbeing is important for optimal mother-child engagement at the cognitive level.”

The team now intends to study the effects of parenting stress on father-child brain synchrony.

The study, done in collaboration with researchers from the United States’ National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Italy’s University of Trento and University of Padova, was published in Nature Scientific Reports in August 2019. [APBN]