Arguing parents could damage their baby for life, study claims
Parents who argue in front of their baby cause them lasting damage because they are likely to suffer from stress in later life, a study has found.
Experiencing adversity in the formative years is known to alter a child’s developing brain, but the latest research has found that even exposure to moderate stresses could have an impact on the way in which the brain functions in later years. The researchers discovered that hearing arguments between parents, even when babies were asleep, affects the way in which they process emotional tones of voice.
Babies from homes with a lot of conflict displayed increased stress levels when they were exposed to angry tones of voice.
In turn, this response may make them more likely to become anxious as adults because they are less able to cope with and regulate their emotions, it is claimed. The way in which exposure to arguments affects a child’s brain has, in previous research, been linked to mood disorders developing from adolescence onwards.
The research team from the University of Oregon pointed out that infants’ brains are highly “plastic”, which is necessary to allow them to develop in response to the environments and encounters they experience.
But this malleability brings with it a certain degree of vulnerability. “We were interested in whether a common source of early stress in children’s lives – conflict between parents – is associated with how infants’ brains function,” said Alice Graham, the lead author.
Researchers used functioning magnetic resonance imaging, a procedure that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow.
Twenty infants, ranging in age from six to 12 months, were tested within the laboratory setting at their regular bedtime. While they were asleep in the scanner, the babies were presented with nonsense sentences spoken in very angry, mildly angry, happy and neutral tones of voice by a male adult.
“Even during sleep, infants showed distinct patterns of brain activity depending on the emotional tone of voice we presented,” Miss Graham said.
The researchers found that infants from high-conflict homes showed greater reactivity to very angry tones of voice in brain areas linked to stress and emotion regulation, such as the anterior cingulate cortex, caudate, thalamus and hypothalamus.
Previous research with animals has shown that these brain areas play an important role in the impact of early stress on development. Based upon their findings, the researchers suggest that the same might be true for human infants.
The findings show that babies are not oblivious to their parents’ conflicts, and exposure to these conflicts could influence the way in which their brains process emotion and anxiety, they concluded.
The authors added: “Far from being oblivious to parents’ conflicts, infants’ processing of stimuli, such as an angry tone of voice, may occur even during sleep.”
Anxiety during the early years has an impact on neural systems that regulate emotion in later life, and makes them more vulnerable, the researchers said. In previous research more serious stresses, such as abuse, have been found to have a detrimental impact on the social and emotional functioning of a child, and the team believes moderate stresses have a similar impact.
The authors said: “Non-physical parental conflict is a more moderate source of early adversity that appears to be associated with alterations in stress hormones, behavioural symptoms and emotional problems during childhood.”
Hayley Dixon Telegraph.co.uk