Positive parenting practices, like praising, noticing, and encouraging children’s behavior, may help reduce the faster rate of biological aging seen in children under adverse conditions, suggests a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. The findings indicate that teaching parents to adopt more positive parenting practices may counter the effects of children’s hardships, improving their long term physical and psychological health. The study was conducted by Alexandra D.W. Sullivan, Ph.D., of the University of Vermont, and colleagues. It appears in Psychological Science.
NIH funding was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities.
Childhood adversity, such as poverty and maltreatment, increases the risk of future physical and psychological health problems. The body’s response to the stress of adversity is linked to more rapid biological aging—the age of a person’s cells, which may exceed their chronological age. Epigenetic aging is a method researchers use to measure biological age. To do this, scientists examine DNA found in biological samples, like saliva. Compounds called methyl groups bind to DNA. Different levels of binding determine whether genes are turned on or off, like a switch turns a light on or off. Scientists have used machine learning algorithms to show that methylation patterns reflect biological age. When biological age exceeds chronological age, it's termed accelerated epigenetic aging.
A previous study found that, for kids whose parents reported depression, participating in a family-based intervention was related to lower epigenetic age acceleration. The researchers attributed this difference to the study’s intervention, which reduced harsh parenting behaviors in families with depressed parents.
Researchers assessed 62 children who were part of an earlier study to test the effectiveness of a 20-week telehealth-based parenting program to treat behavior problems. The study team hypothesized that an increase in positive parenting behaviors in the group that received the intervention would slow epigenetic aging in the presence of adversity, such as poverty, environmental pollution, substandard schools, and parental mental health problems.
About half of the families received the intervention, and the other half received referrals to community providers. The program consisted of teaching positive behaviors to parents, like supporting and encouraging their children and avoiding negative behaviors, such as yelling or harsh criticism. Periodic assessments of parents’ interactions with children were conducted in the families’ homes. The children were from Hispanic, African American, and white families with low household income.
The researchers found that children exposed to more adversity had less epigenetic aging when their parents engaged in more positive parenting practices and fewer negative practices. In contrast, children whose parents displayed more negative behaviors had more advanced epigenetic aging.
The results strongly suggest that positive parenting practices may counteract epigenetic aging caused by childhood adversity.
The investigators called for a larger study to verify the effectiveness of positive parenting at counteracting epigenetic aging on young children who experience adversity.
Sullivan ADW, et al. Parenting practices may buffer the impact of adversity on epigenetic age acceleration among young children with developmental delays. Psychological Science. 2023.