No child likes to be oppressed by domineering parents, and now we have scientific evidence that this “iron fist” style of parenting has damaging effects on a child’s brain development and psychological health.
Scientist Nosuke Narita of Gunma University, Japan and a team of researchers scanned the brains of 50 people between the ages of 20 and 30, and had them complete a survey on the quality of relationships they had with their parents between the ages of 1 to 16.
The survey used in this study, which is an internationally recognized way to asses parent-child relationships and is called Parental Bonding Instrument, asks participants to rate how their parents raised them based on statements like “did not want me to grow up”, “tried to control everything I did” and “tried to make me feel dependent on her/him”.
Neglectful Fathers Involved in Reduced Brain Size
Based on the brain scans taken of the participants, the research team found that those children who had parents who were strict and overprotective had less grey matter in a particular area of the prefrontal cortex than those with healthy parent-child relationships. A child who experienced neglect from their father also correlated to less grey matter in this area of the brain, and interestingly, this reduction in grey matter was not found in the brains of those who experienced neglect from their mothers as children.
Abnormalities in this area of the prefrontal cortex are commonly associated with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
Why Shrunken Brains from Strict or Neglectful Parents?
What is the mechanism by which a child’s brain reduces in size from strict or neglectful parental practices?
Nosuke Narita theorizes that the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, as well as reduced dopamine production leads to stunted growth of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex.
The important thing we can take from this study is that it highlights the fact that the way we raise our children can has long-term effects on our children, and that by being strict or neglectful towards them, we are actually harming their development and chances of reaching their potential as human beings.
Is the Damage Permanent?
Although this reduction in brain volume has been directly linked to the parent’s behaviour, Anthony Harris, director of the Clinical Disorders Unit at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, Australia says that the brain differences are not always permanent, and adds that “many individuals show great resilience.”
Another interesting perspective on the results of the brain scans by Stephen Wood puts the carriage before the horse, theorizing that the subjects may have been born with the abnormalities, and as a result didn’t bond well with their parents, not the other way around.
The study team has been criticized by Wood for excluding low socioeconomic status individuals and uneducated parents from the study – two factors well known for contributing to poor performance in cognitive tests. “The effect they found may be real, but why worry about parenting if there are other factors that are so much larger?” he says.