We have all heard the saying “A happy wife makes a happy life”, but how are the lives of those within a family and household affected when the woman of the house is stressed? How does the amount of stress that a mom carries manifest in the lives of her children? According to a new study led by researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, stress in a mom affects her ability to be in synchronization with her children. In collaboration with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the United States and Italy’s University of Trento and University of Padova, the research results were published in Nature Scientific Reports on August 29, 2019.
For the research study, researchers analyzed the brain activity of 31 pairs of mothers and their children. While both the mother and child were watching children’s animation clips together, they observed that mothers who reported higher levels of parenting stress had less synchrony in brain activity with their child (all aged around 3 years old) than those who reported lower levels of parenting stress.
The specific part of the brain region monitored for synchrony was the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with the ability to understand others' point of view. In general, when the parent and child show highly similar brain activity in the same areas of the brain, it suggests that both are highly tuned in to each other's emotional states.
For the study, researchers used functional Near-infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) caps as a non-invasive way to measure brain activation based on blood concentration levels in the brain. According to the published report, they combined the use of the caps with a recently developed method called tandem hyper-scanning that simultaneously records the brain activity of two people. Mothers answered a questionnaire that was aimed to measure parenting stress. The mother-child pairs then wore the fNIRS caps with the child sitting on the mother's lap while they both watched animation clips from Brave, Peppa Pig and The Incredibles together.
Parenting stress occurs when the demands of parenting exceed the coping resources that a parent perceives they have available. Excessive parenting stress can block maternal sensitivity, lead to reactions that punish the child and negatively affect the parent-child relationship for the long term. The author of this published research study, Ms. Atigah Azhari, a PhD candidate at the SAN-Lab at NTU states, “Our study brings us a step closer to uncovering how parenting stress weakens the mother-child relationship on a day-to-day basis. We did not expect to find a clear relationship between parenting stress and brain synchrony when the mother and child did something as simple as watching animation together. This suggests that the mother's mental wellbeing is important for optimal mother-child engagement at the cognitive level."
The NTU research team compared the mother's and child's brain activity to calculate brain-to-brain synchrony and found that for those parents reporting higher levels of parenting stress, the degree of mother-child synchrony in part of the prefrontal cortex was diminished, compared to those parents reporting lower stress who had better synchrony.
In conclusion, if the woman of the house is stressed it may very well affect her ability to genuinely be in tune with her children and home environment. As mothers, we must continue to make our own self-care and mental well-being a priority.