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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 17:24 EDT

Children In Poverty Are Worse Off If Their Parents Aren’t Nurturing

October 29, 2013
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

According to a new study from the Washington University School of Medicine, children who live in poverty without nurturing parents may end up dealing with long-lasting negative consequences. According to the research, children living in poverty are less able to deal with stress and are more likely to develop life-long depression and learning disabilities. Conversely, those children who are nurtured are more likely to avoid these pitfalls and grow up to be happy adults.

Principal investigator Joan L. Luby, MD, a Washington University child psychiatrist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, says the key deciding factor in these results isn’t how much money parents make, but the extent to which they nurture their child. After analyzing MRI scans of children enrolled in a depression study, Dr. Luby and team say they happened upon this finding and say the stress associated with poverty could be a contributing factor. When this stress is handed down from the parents, the mental development of the children could suffer.

Dr. Luby’s study will be published in the November issue of JAMA Pediatrics.

“We’ve known for many years from behavioral studies that exposure to poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children,” said Dr. Luby in a press statement. “A growing number of neuroscience and brain-imaging studies recently have shown that poverty also has a negative effect on brain development. What’s new is that our research shows the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses that the children experience.”

The MRI scans on these depressed children show that the amygalda and hippocampus are smaller in those children who live in poverty. These portions of the brain are responsible for emotional health and learning, respectively.

All told, Dr. Luby and team looked at MRI scans from 145 children, some of which were depressed, some healthy, and some diagnosed with psychiatric disorders such as ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). It wasn’t until after they began analyzing these scans they discovered the link between stress and lesser development of the amygdala and hippocampus.

“We actually stumbled upon this finding,” said Dr. Luby. “Initially, we thought we would have to control for the effects of poverty, but as we attempted to control for it, we realized that poverty was really driving some of the outcomes of interest, and that caused us to change our focus to poverty, which was not the initial aim of this study.”

To test their hypothesis, Dr. Luby and team began to measure how nurturing the parents were rather than looking at strict poverty numbers alone. When the children in the study came in for a clinical visit, the researchers gave the children a gift-wrapped package and were told they could not open it until the parents completed a set of paper work. The researchers estimated the parents needed about ten minutes to complete the paper work in order for the children to receive their reward.

The researchers then observed the parents as they interacted with their children while they completed the paper work and labeled parents as good nurturers if they were able to comfortably juggle the paperwork and their excited children. Likewise, children with nurturing parents were less likely to act out and were able to wait the ten minutes before opening their package.

“Children who experience positive caregiver support don’t necessarily experience the developmental, cognitive and emotional problems that can affect children who don’t receive as much nurturing, and that is tremendously important,” said Dr. Luby.

“This study gives us a feasible, tangible target with the suggestion that early interventions that focus on parenting may provide a tremendous payoff.”