A Neuroscientist Talks Parenting

Psychology professor Nim Tottenham ’96 breaks down how parents can apply her research to their daily lives

By Veronica Suchodolski ’19

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Woman holding a child

When Nim Tottenham ’96, a professor of psychology at Columbia and a parent of two, set out to research normative human brain development, she made an important discovery: Early childhood experiences can literally change the way we think, not just as children but into adulthood. That means that parents — whose position as a child’s first social partners has an outsized influence on their brain development — have a big role to play in ensuring well-being later in life.

We called up Tottenham, who runs the Developmental Affective Neuroscience Lab at Columbia, and asked her to break down her research and share how parents can translate her findings into their day-to-day lives.

In brief, what is the science behind how parents influence us in early childhood?

Our research is motivated by the seemingly bizarre way that humans grow up, which is namely that we spend an extraordinarily long time with our parents — more so compared to most, if not all, other species.

Our research is asking ‘What good is a parent, period?’ What we find is consistent across species: Parents are a very effective buffer of children’s fear responses. Even though a child may face something threatening, the presence of a parent who themselves is calm and regulated is a really powerful shield against stress-related elevations in children’s neurobiology and physiology. Conversely, if the parent themselves expresses too much fear and distress, then the parent may be just as effective at amplifying children’s stress and fear neurobiology.

How can parents help in regulating their children’s emotions without getting in the way of their emotional growth?

One of the questions we’re interested in is ‘When do these effects come into play?’ That buffering effect that I was describing earlier may be particularly important at very young ages. As children get older, then increasingly they’re going to need experiences of autonomy. We need to learn how to fall down; otherwise, we’re going to get really hurt in the future when we have a really big fall. Learning how to manage difficult situations is an important developmental task. Despite parents’ best intentions, removing all obstacles from children’s paths may not be in the child’s best interest, since learning to live with challenges will certainly be part of life.

What can parents do if they feel like they’re having difficulty managing their own stress levels?

The goal is not that parents should present an emotionally blunted picture of the world to their children, but to help them understand that emotions, even really big ones, happen, but after they crescendo, big emotions also come to an end. I don’t mean to imply that we should be stoic robots. If I’m sad about something that I should be sad about, I let my children know that I’m feeling sad. I help them understand that this is normal and, actually, by talking it through, I will be less sad later and that this feeling resolves over time. Parents can really be thought of as scaffolding the way that children’s brains are developing and the way that their emotional understanding and responses are developing. 

What are steps we can all take in supporting the well-being of children?

As a society, we have to decide if we care about children. And a child is never just a child. They don’t exist on their own; they are inextricably tied to their families. So if we care about children, then we have to care about families. And how do we support families? Because that’s really the medium in which children live and grow. 

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