‘Positive’ parenting protects kids’ brains from damage caused by stress, according to a new study. But there’s a catch

We can’t always protect our children from the hard knocks of life—but parenting them with care may shield them from the negative impact of stress.

That’s according to an article published this week in the medical journal PNAS Nexus. “Positive” parenting—defined by researchers as warm, supportive, validating, and responsive—had a protective effect on children ages 10-17 who experienced major stressors like illness, poverty, or the death of a loved one.

Stress places children at higher risk of behavior problems and decreased volumes of hippocampus—a vulnerable area in the brain that plays an important role in learning and memory. Stressed youth, however, who experienced “high levels” of positive parenting didn’t suffer such consequences. That’s according to researchers who followed nearly 500 older children, surveying them and examining MRIs of their brains.

But there’s a catch: The protective effect was only found in kids who reported being parented in a positive manner. Children who reported negative parenting—but whose parents disagreed—didn’t experience any significant protection against behavior problems and reduced brain volumes, researchers reported.

“Such findings underscore the importance of including youth as reporters of their own experiences to better understand consequences for neurodevelopment and behavior,” they write.

The neuroscience behind positive parenting

Parenting may be an artform, but positive parenting is grounded in neuroscience. So contends attachment specialist Daniel Hughes and clinical psychologist Jonathan Baylin, who co-wrote the 2012 book Brain-based Parenting: The neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment.

The following four factors form the basis of healthy caregiving, the duo contends:

  • Playfulness: It’s a “fully present intersubjective space” that leads to “deep joy, pleasure, and fascination” for both parent and child, Hughes and Baylin write.
  • Acceptance: Ideally, parents love their children unconditionally, not evaluating them as “good” or “bad,” but simply evaluating their needs at the moment. That’s the goal.
  • Curiosity: Parents and infants are “intensely fascinated with each other” from birth, the authors write. Ideally, for parents, that curiosity develops into a quest to fully know their child—not who they want them to be, but who they are intrinsically.
  • Empathy: Hughes and Baylin refer to this as “the other side of playfulness.” Playfulness helps parent and child regulate positive emotions together, whereas empathy helps them regulate negative emotions as a pair.

    Writes the duo: “These two processes—one centering around joy, the other, comfort—strengthen each other, creating a more robust relationship that can handle the full range of human experience without breaking.”