Children who grow up poor can have a host of problems that last throughout their lifetime, but those who also grew up without nurturing parents have even more negative consequences.
According to a new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, poor children undergo changes in the brain that can lead to lifelong problems like depression, learning difficulties and limitations in the ability to cope with stress. Whether or not parents were nurturing strongly influence these issues.
A nurturing home may offset some negative changes in the brain anatomy among poor children, the researchers say. Therefore, parents must learn how to be nurturing to benefit their children.
“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 principal investigator Joan L. Luby, MD, a Washington University child psychiatrist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “A growing number of neuroscience and brain-imaging studies recently have shown that poverty also has a negative effect on brain development.”
Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and discovered that children whose parents weren’t very nurturing were likely to have less gray and white matter in the brain. Gray matter is linked to intelligence and white matter is linked to the brain’s ability to transmit signals.
The scans also showed that two brain structures were smaller in children who were living in poverty; the amygdala, a key structure in emotional health, and the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is critical to learning and memory.
Currently, the federal poverty rate is $23, 550 for a family of four.
“Parents can be less emotionally responsive for a whole host of reasons,” Luby said. “They may work two jobs or regularly find themselves trying to scrounge together money for food. Perhaps they live in an unsafe environment. They may be facing many stresses, and some don’t have the capacity to invest in supportive parenting as much as parents who don’t have to live in the midst of those adverse circumstances.”
Poor children are also more likely to be stressed, which can harm brain development. The findings show that it is crucial for parents to develop skills to ease stress on children and to ensure a nurturing environment.