Family Tension Can Impact Child’s Brain

08 May Family Tension Can Impact Child’s Brain

We’ve been saying for years that conflict between parents—if hostile, unresolved, and frequent—is bad for kids.   Now there is biological evidence.   When there has been tension between parents, arguments, and a lack of affection , the child’s cerebellum is smaller according to researchers who assessed 58 teenagers. The cerebellum is an important brain area involved in skill learning, stress regulation and sensory-motor control, and a smaller cerebellum is frequently found among individuals who suffer with mental illness.

“These findings are important because exposure to adversities in childhood and adolescence is the biggest risk factor for later psychiatric disease,” study leader Dr Nicholas Walsh, of the University of East Anglia, England, said in a news release.   What is important here is the level of conflict and tension in the youth’s families. Previous studies have focused on the effects of severe abuse and neglect. But this study found common and ongoing family problems can also be a risk factor for psychiatric ills in young people.

The study, published recently in NeuroImage: Clinical, found the teens who experienced mild to moderate family troubles from the time they were born until age 11 had a smaller cerebellum later in adolescence.   “We show that exposure in childhood and early adolescence to even mild to moderate family difficulties, not just severe forms of abuse, neglect and maltreatment, may affect the developing adolescent brain,” noted Walsh.

As often the case in research, this study only shows an association between family tension and cerebellum size, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. For example, a smaller cerebellum could be inherited via the parent’s genes. Still, this study fits into decades of research that shows that conflict between parents that is not managed well often have long-term, negative effects on children. And the striking piece of evidence here is the relation of the size of a brain structure with even mild to moderate levels of family conflict during childhood.

All the more reason, in our view, to start off new families on the right path from the beginning. And Family Foundations is one way for parents to learn how to support each other through the stresses and strains of the early parenting years.