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Health & Parenting

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Mom’s Support Tied to Child's Brain Development

Study Finds That Strong Parental Support May Be Linked to Area of Brain Important for Handling Stress

Support Bolsters Brain’s Learning Memory Centers

Among the 51 kids in the study who had no symptoms of depression as preschoolers, those who got more support from their moms as they completed the waiting task had larger hippocampi seen in later scans.

That brain region was about 9% smaller, however, in non-depressed kids who got little or no help dealing with their stress and frustration as they waited to open the gift.

“What maternal support is doing in the kids who are not depressed is reducing their exposure to stressors, which is helping them. It’s reducing the impact of stress,” says Ian H. Gotlib, PhD, professor of psychology at Stanford University. Gotlib studies the biological basis of depression, but was not involved in the research.

“It’s a great study,” says Gotlib, who is also director of the university’s Mood and Anxiety Disorders Laboratory. “It opens up some really interesting possibilities for intervening.”

Depressed Kids May Not Respond as Well

Among the 41 kids who had symptoms of depression as preschoolers, maternal support didn’t appear to be as helpful, however. Depressed kids with high support from their mothers still had smaller hippocampi compared to non-depressed kids with highly supportive mothers. However, the size was only 6% smaller.

Researchers say that may be because the positive effect of maternal support may be countered by the negative effect of depression.

“Maternal support is helpful in depressed children, but it doesn’t have as powerful an effect because their brain development is being brought down by other forces,” Luby says.

But Gotlib says that doesn’t mean kids who are showing signs of depression early in life can’t be helped.

“That, to me, just kind of emphasizes how important it is to get these kids treated, or to teach them coping strategies, to do something to reduce those depressive symptoms,” he says.

Gotlib says it could be that early treatment may help depressed kids get to a place where they can also respond well to love and support.

In either case, he says the message for parents is clear: “You don’t lose anything by trying to be more supportive if you’re a mom. In both groups, maternal support is better than not.” Although nearly all participants in the study were mother-child pairs, the authors note that they would expect the same findings with any primary caregiver.

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