The relationship you have with your kids will physically affect them, study shows
We all know that how we parent our kids will affect what kind of people they grow up to become.
But did you know that the kind of relationship you foster with your children, whether good or bad, will actually show up physically – years later – in their saliva?
Or, at least, that is what this new US research says.
As part of the study, Elizabeth Shirtcliff, an associate professor from Iowa State University who studies early childhood adversity, gathered 300 8th-grade kids and used a simple survey to determine some basic facts about their parents. The kids were asked things like whether they were close with their parents and how often positive reinforcement was used in their household.
According to Shirtcliff, her team was looking for signs of what they called "positive parenting, attachment, and bonding."
And then, six years later, the kids, which were by now young adults, were brought back – this time for a more physical follow-up, where Shirtcliff and her team of researchers collected a variety of different samples of their saliva.
This might sound a little odd, but what they were looking for, Shirtcliff explains, was presence of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, apparently, is crucial to our overall feeling of wellbeing, with low levels being tied to fatigue, mood swings, and muscle loss, for example. At the other end of the spectrum, higher levels of cortisol correlate with healthy blood pressure and better immune system function.
For this study, according to the researchers, cortisol was particularly important because it plays a big role in how we process and react to stress. When we're faced with extreme stress or danger, cortisol floods our bodies, resulting in the "fight or flight," response.
The study's authors observed that people who are generally more stressed over longer periods of time, however, often show lower cortisol levels — almost like they get accustomed to all that stress over time and have a lesser reaction to it. While this might sound like a good thing, as far as your health goes, it's definitively not.
The results of the study were clear: The more signs the kids showed of a positive bond with their parents when they were young, the better their cortisol functioned in adulthood.
In other words – having great parents who use positive parenting methods is a good thing.
However, there was a twist in the study when it came to looking at different racial demographics, where researchers found that parenting styles aren't the only thing that can affect stress levels and kids' response to it.
For instance, many of the white students in the study may have benefited from "low stress, resource-rich contexts which unfortunately may be less common for black youth," the researchers explained. As well as this, other groups, including black people of people Jewish descent, carry biological markers of trauma from previous generations (i.e., slavery, the Holocaust), which can also affect cortisol response – proving that growing up with various socioeconomic and other hardships does indeed have a lifelong impact.