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Parents protect against stress for younger, not older children

by Kurt Kleiner Mar 2 / 15

Although a parent’s presence helps younger children reduce or prevent the activation of powerful stress hormone responses in difficult situations, adolescent children get much less benefit, according to new research.

The research by Megan R. Gunnar (University of Minnesota), an associate fellow in CIFAR’s program in Child & Brain Development, could help untangle the complex role upbringing plays in how humans respond to stress, and also cast light in the neurological changes that occur during puberty.

The system studied produces the steroid hormone cortisol which helps turn stressful experiences into physical effects on the body and the brain.

“Social support plays an important role in helping people deal with stress, and parental support is especially important in allowing children to experience and learn from emotionally stressful experiences like going to the doctor, performing in public, or starting a new school, without having those experiencing trigger hormonal stress responses that can affect physical health and brain development,” Gunnar says. “What has been an open question until now is how long in a child’s development the parent serves the stress hormone buffering role,” she added.

Many studies have shown that relationships with parents affect stress responses and health in children in the long run. Children who had responsive and supportive parents tend to deal better with stressful situations as they age. Also, previous work with very young children shows they experience much less of a bodily response to stressful events when with a parent.

The researchers were interested in whether the support provided by a parent extends to adolescent children. Adolescence tends to be a time when children are distancing themselves from their parents and orienting themselves towards their peers. And a number of neurological and hormonal changes are also affecting them.

To study the difference, the researchers took one group of children from ages nine to 10, and another from ages 15 to 16, and gave them a public speaking test designed to induce stress. Some of the children prepared for the test with a parent to help them, and some with a stranger. Their response to the stress was determined by measure the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva.

Results showed that the younger children showed no elevation in stress hormone when they prepared with their parent, even though the children still reported that they were anxious while they gave their speech. Thus the parent’s presence blocked activation of this powerful hormonal stress system. But for teenagers, the parents were no more helpful for relieving stress than the strangers.

In a subsequent study, Gunnar and her student examined the role that puberty played in altering the stress-blocking potency of the parent’s involvement. They took children who were the same age but at different stages in pubertal development and examined whether the parent’s presence blocked activation of the cortisol response to the public speaking challenge. Children who were at earlier stages in pubertal development were protected from a stress hormone increase if they prepared for the speech with their parent.

For children at later stages in puberty their stress hormone response was equivalent whether they prepared with their parent or a stranger. Thus it seems that puberty plays a critical role in reducing the potency of the parent as a buffer of the body’s stress hormone response to experiencing psychological stress.

One possible explanation for the results is that after a certain point in puberty, teenagers simply have a harder time regulating the body’s response to the experience of psychological stress regardless of the support they are given. It’s also possible that because peers are increasingly important to adolescents that they would find the presence of a peer more helpful.

But if so, the study could have important implications for teenagers who fail to establish close friendships. That could lead them unable to derive support from parents, but with no peer to provide a social buffer to stress either.