Study: Maternal affection impacts adult mental health

By Pamela Berard
October 1st, 2010

A new study suggests that infants who received high levels of maternal affection may be better able to deal with life stressors as adults.

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, was based on 482 people in a Providence, R.I., birth cohort of the National Collaborative Perinatal Project in the late 1950s/early 1960s. As part of the project, psychologists observed and objectively rated mothers during routine developmental assessment of their eight-month-olds. The psychologists rated how the mother coped with her child’s tests and how she responded to the child. The amount of affection was categorized in such terms as “extravagant” or “negative.” Of those interactions, six percent were categorized by “very high levels” of maternal affection. Most (85 percent) were rated as having “normal” levels, with the remaining group said to have “low” levels.

In the mid-1990s, those eight-month-olds – then an average age of 34 – received a mental health assessment of levels of distress, including anxiety, hostility, somatization, and interpersonal sensitivity. Those whose mothers were in the “high” affection category had the lowest levels in all of the stressor categories, when compared to the children whose mothers fell in the “normal” or “low” categories. The difference was especially high in the “anxiety” category. Some theories suggest that high levels of maternal affection may prompt better bonding and attachments and promote better social and coping skills.

Researcher Joanna Maselko, Sc.D., an assistant professor at Duke University, says one theory involves stress regulation. “Maybe this affectionate behavior kind of activates these neurochemical pathways that then help people regulate these stress responses.”

Or, the results could just be a marker for something else going on. “We see this link with affection, but maybe there’s a gene that makes you less affectionate or prone to anxiety,” she says.

But while researchers aren’t sure what the specific link is between maternal affection and lower distress levels in adults, “This really does seem to signal that we need to pay attention to children at a very early age and look for these issues or it could really have an imprint on their entire lives,” Maselko says.

“It points that there is a lot of important stuff happening at the beginning of life,” she says. “The thing that we cannot say is what is it about affection per se? These moms that are more affectionate might also be more attentive or have a whole bunch of characteristics. They themselves might have very low anxiety levels or have a predisposition to be laid-back parents.”

Also, the initial observations were made 50 years ago, when the interpretation of “affectionate” was likely different than what it is today.

“The other thing that is important to note about these findings is that it’s very specific to affection,” she says, noting that affection is independent of parental involvement (another study has demonstrated that both over- and under-involvement by parents are linked with worse mental health).

While the children whose mothers showed high levels of affection scored lower in all distress areas, there was no difference between the children whose mothers scored “normal” and “low.”

“That was one of the more surprising things of our studies,” Maselko says. “All the action was between this middle and the really high affection.”

“One thought that we had is that by the time a mom agrees to participate in this study and shows up, you are getting the kind of moms that are a little bit more involved maybe. So that even if somebody who would be characterized by low affection compared to everybody else in the study, might not be really low in affection if we compared them to (the general population).”

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