Positive Parenting Overcomes the Effects of Poverty on Brain Development

New research shows that positive parenting can overcome the
effects of poverty on healthy brain development in
adolescents. In a
published in the Journal of the American Medical
Association, Brody and colleagues described a neuroimaging study
demonstrating that supportive parenting prevented the reduced
growth of certain areas of the brain that occurred as a response to
living in poverty.

IMG Positive parenting and brain development

on the association of poverty with poor academic and
psychosocial outcomes in childhood have pointed to the critical
role of stress on brain development. Physical and social stress
that often occurs during childhood in lower socioeconomic
environments can influence the growth of the brain. In particular,
there is evidence that development of the amygdala and hippocampus,
brain regions that support learning, memory, mood and stress
reactivity, is suppressed in disadvantaged children.

Brody et al conducted a neuroimaging study on 119 25-year-olds
who had participated as adolescents in the Strong African American
Families randomized trial (SAAF), a program designed to mitigate
the negative effect of life stress on rural African American youths
by encouraging positive parenting. The intention of the study
was to correlate the size of specific areas of the hippocampus and
amygdala in these individuals, as determined by magnetic resonance
imaging, with the number of years between the ages of 11 and 18
that they had lived under the federal poverty line.

The results showed that, in the control population that had not
been enrolled into the SAAF program, more time spent living in
poverty was associated with smaller than average volume in areas of
the amygdala and hippocampus. The good news was that this
suppressive effect of poverty on brain maturation was prevented in
those youths whose families had the benefit of the SAAF
intervention. The promotion of positive parenting had conferred
resilience to the stress of poverty. Importantly, this protective
effect was detected at age 25 – it had lasted into

Interestingly, these positive results were achieved in a program
serving the families of adolescent children. More than 95% of brain
development occurs during the first six years of life, and the brain is
particularly susceptible to the stress associated with poverty
during this timeframe

Through the Reach Out and Read program, pediatric care providers
are able to take advantage of their access to children during these
early years. They encourage parents to spend time engaging with
their young children through looking at books together starting in
infancy,building the parent-child bonds that will alleviate the
effects of adverse circumstances in the early years.

This study encourages us that, through interventions that help
parents to bring up their children in a positive, responsive way,
it is possible to buffer against the consequences of poverty and
low socioeconomic environments. Leveling the playing field
for disadvantaged children in this way can contribute to closing
the achievement gap.