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How love makes kids smarter and healthier

7 September 2018
6 minute read

mother and daughter sharing a loving moment

Every parent wants what’s best for their child. But the wealth of advice on how to guide them to being happy, healthy, successful adults can be overwhelming! Fortunately, there’s only one simple thing that we need to do to give them the best start that they need in life: we need to love them.

We took a look at the leading research that explains how parental love makes children smarter, happier and more confident.

Your love can actually grow your child’s brainA child who is well nurtured will grow up to have a larger hippocampus - which is the section of the brain responsible for learning, memory and response to stress. This was the conclusion of a study by a team of child psychiatrists and neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis. “Nurturing” was measured by assessing how each mother helped her child to deal with the stress of waiting to open an exciting looking gift, which was meant to replicate stressful situations that children might find themselves in.

nurturing has a very, very big impact on later development

“This study validates something that seems to be intuitive, which is just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings,” says lead author Joan L Luby, MD, professor of child psychiatry. “I think the public health implications suggest that we should pay more attention to parents’ nurturing, and we should do what we can as a society to foster these skills because clearly nurturing has a very, very big impact on later development.”

Although in the study, 95% of the parents whose nurturing skills were evaluated were biological mothers, the researchers say that the effects of nurturing on the brain were likely to be the same for any primary caregiver, including fathers, grandparents or adoptive parents.

Your affection will reduce your child’s chances of developing behaviour problemsA parent’s warmth and affection towards their child has lifelong positive outcomes for the child (and we imagine for the parent as well).

Child Trends, a non-profit research organisation in the United States, found that children who are shown affection have higher self-esteem, improved academic performance, better communication with their parents, and fewer psychological and behaviour problems. Children who did not have affectionate parents had lower self-esteem, and felt more alienated, hostile, aggressive and antisocial.

And another study in 2010 by Duke University Medical School found that babies with very affectionate and attentive mothers grow up to be happier, more resilient and less anxious adults.

So, although your children may know you love them, find ways to show them how, every day. This doesn’t have to mean physical affection – it can mean praise, attention, time spent, or care taken – just remember to let it show.

Your loving family environment makes all the difference to your child’s health and smartsChildren who live in a supportive family environment will generally be more intelligent, emotionally stable and even taller! These were the findings of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which is the first randomised clinical trial that has investigated the effects of social deprivation on the emotional, psychological and physical health of children.

The study recorded the wellbeing of children raised in a Romanian orphanage from an early age, where children are typically looked after by a rota of carers who are responsible for 12 to 15 children at any time and compared them to children raised in a caring foster family.

Your early attentiveness will relieve your child’s stress for the rest of their lifeResponding to your infant’s cries will mean they become less stressed adults with better coping mechanisms.

Michael Commons and Patrice Miller, researchers from the Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry examined childrearing practices in America and in other cultures around the world and concluded that putting babies in separate beds and rooms, and not responding quickly to their cries may lead to incidents of post-traumatic stress and panic disorders when the children reach adulthood.

“The early stress resulting from separation causes changes in infant brains that makes future adults more susceptible to stress in their lives,” Commons and Miller stated.

So, enjoy lots of close cuddles in bed together in the early years and be quick to respond to your baby when they are crying for you.

Your love can change the bad in your child into goodJames Fallon is an American neuroscientist who, when he was conducting a study into murderers, noticed that his brain had exactly the same brain imaging pattern and genetic make-up of a full-blown psychopath. However, Fallon himself was a successful scientist and family man. So what stopped him from exhibiting the tendencies that his brain suggested?

Fallon believes – and he’s in the position to make an educated supposition – that it was because he had a loving and involved mother. Whenever he displayed problematic or risky behaviour, she responded appropriately, making him apologise for petty theft and return what was stolen, for example. But this was always done with love and support, making him want to improve his behaviour.

“One most likely reason is that although I have the genetic makeup of a ‘born’ psychopath, some of those very same ‘risk’ genes in someone showered with love (versus abuse or abandonment), from childbirth through the critical first few years of life, appear to offset the psychopathy-inducing effects of the other ‘risk’ genes,” he says. “This is why I tell my 97-year-old mother that the book I wrote about a young boy who could have turned out to be quite a danger to society is just about someone who will do anything to beat you at a game of Scrabble or follow you into a deadly cave. She doesn’t realise that the book is not about me, it is about her.”

Your loving touch will help your child’s brain to develop better and give them self-confidenceBeing physically affectionate with your child may help the development of the part of their brain that deals with social interaction.

Researchers in Germany and Singapore used brain imaging to see whether receiving a lot of fond caresses affects the human brain positively. The researchers asked child-and-mother pairs to play with toys for ten minutes, and then counted how many times mothers touched their children during the game. A couple of days later, they scanned each child’s brain while they were at rest and found that the brain activity across the networks that control social behaviour were far stronger in children who received more tactile attention from their mothers.

“There is already a substantial literature looking at the positive effects of touch in infants,” including links between touch and an infant’s growth and emotional development, said Annett Schirmer, a psychologist at the National University of Singapore. “Our work adds by showing a relation specifically to the social brain.”

A 2013 study by UK published in Frontiers of Psychology found that gentle touch, which usually occurs between loving partners, affectionate close friends or a parent and child makes the recipient (or both parties) feel safe and secure, which has long-term benefits for the brain.

All the more reason to cuddle, squeeze and kiss your children from head to toe as often as possible.

It must be love!There’s so much pressure on parents. It’s good to know that one of the best things you can do for your child’s development is simply to shower them with love. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do and is a treat for them and for you – every day.

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