THE BLOG
01/07/2015 02:48 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Give Parents Respect, Not Bad Interpretations of Neuroscience

Parenting experts want to help us. They want to foster our self-awareness so we can not only effectively self-regulate during challenging moments with our children, but so we can also cultivate our children's self-awareness so they, too, can effectively self-regulate. Many of these experts look to the science, particularly neuroscience, to inform the advice they provide. However, how that science is interpreted can go far beyond the actual data.

For instance, a recent article in The Atlantic (which was not written by a parenting expert but described the work of some), discussed the controversial cry-it-out method for getting young children to sleep. According to this article, if you let your child cry-it-out so as to attain "playground bragging rights" that your child sleeps through the night, proving that you're a "good" parent, you are actually abandoning your child as "the child's brain can only process that as abandonment." Overlooking the fury-inducing moralistic tone, the use of the word "only" in that last statement is alarming as it makes it absolute. When I initially read it, my mind conjured up an image of a fMRI scan showing the word "abandoned" over the area of the brain that lights up as a baby cries, which, of course, does not happen in such studies. In fact, a search of the research literature revealed no infant sleep study using fMRI to examine cry-it-out (probably because such an approach would entail leaving the baby in a foreign and very noisy tube). Thus, the "abandoned" feeling is likely inferred from interpretations of studies of social isolation[1] or possibly other research, which, of course, The Atlantic article fails to provide. So parents are left in the dark and at the mercy of an author who is interpreting someone else's interpretation of neuroscience research unrelated to actual sleep research.

Sounds like a game of telephone, doesn't it?

Further, what parents don't know is that parenting experts tend to look at the abuse and neglect research to justify their claims that the cry-it-out method, or any other behaviorist approach they don't like such as time-outs, harms children. Take Psychology Today columnist Dr. Darcia Narvaez for instance. In her 2011 column, she stated:

With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted--that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long-term.

However, Narvaez and other experts are assuming that acts of "unresponsive parenting" wherein we allow our babies to become distressed are, as neuroethicist Bruce Maxwell states, "comparable in kind and in degree to that induced in situations of extreme abuse and neglect"[2]. Common sense, however, tells us that they are not. But it's hard to exercise common sense when words like "abandoned" and "damage" are being tossed about, prompting parents' stress response systems to flood with cortisol[3].

What parents also don't necessarily know, and the parenting experts fail to tell us for fear (or so it seems) that we will adopt what they perceive as abusive and neglectful behaviorist parenting strategies, is that the brain is so complex that a hormone such as cortisol doesn't only spike under negative circumstances. For instance, researchers found a spike in children's cortisol levels two days before Christmas, and it was highest in the children who expected lots of gifts and fun activities[4].

Perhaps we should cancel Christmas next year. Or, at the very least, ensure our children have extremely low expectations regarding presents and fun.

Additionally, some children who have been exposed to early life trauma (which refers to events such as divorce, family violence, death of parent, etc., but not cry-it-out) have been shown to have a decrease in cortisol levels, which may actually be a sign of resilience rather than impairment[5]. And children exposed to early life trauma but who have received good care from extended relatives have been shown to have cortisol levels that are not much different from children who experienced no trauma[6]. This demonstrates how subsequent interactions can mediate stress response development[5]. It also shows how important context (which includes genetic, social, ecological, psychological and developmental factors) is to shaping brain and behavior[7]. Thus, how children develop is not a simple direct result of maternal (as the research focuses on mothers, ahem) care[8].

Frankly, duping parents into thinking that children's brains are so fragile is just downright disrespectful because it's not factually accurate. Yes, our brains are wired for attachment and social interaction and contain an emotional system that develops through relationships[9]. In fact, our entire species evolved because of our emotions and our social ability[10]. But why do parenting experts feel the need to make us think that system is so fragile? Does it even make sense that a system that's evolved over millions of years and is at the root of our very existence should be so delicate? No. As Flinn et al. state:

A more flexible system that allows inclusion of input throughout childhood and adolescence would have advantages over one primarily contingent on conditions during infancy[4].

Input throughout childhood and adolescence.

Yes. That's the long view that parenting experts should respectfully promote, which means not using oversimplified, anxiety-inducing parenting causal models based upon overreaching interpretations of seductive neuroscience research.

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(By the way, researchers don't recommend a full cry-it-out method for sleep training because it's so difficult for the parents,[11] which explains why most parents -- or least the ones I've encountered -- use it as a last resort. Thus, researchers tend to examine and generally recommend graduated extinction or adult fading, both of which involve the infant crying[13]. Neither of these methods are shown to permanently damage children or their relationships with their mothers[12,14]. But they can help them to sleep better[15].)

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1. Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(7), 294-300. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2004.05.010; Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292.

2. Maxwell, B., & Racine, E. (2012). Does the neuroscience research on early stress justify responsive childcare? Examining interwoven epistemological and ethical challenges. Neuroethics, 5(2), 159-172. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9110-z

3. Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., & Macvarish, J. (2014). Parenting culture studies. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

4. Flinn, M. V., Nepomnaschy, P. A., Muehlenbein, M. P., & Ponzi, D. (2011). Evolutionary functions of early social modulation of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis development in humans. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(7), 1611-1629. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.01.005

5. Gunnar, M. R., Frenn, K., Wewerka, S. S., & Van Ryzin, M. J. (2009). Moderate versus severe early life stress: Associations with stress reactivity and regulation in 10-12-year-old children. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(1), 62-75. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.013

6. Flinn, M. V., & Leone, D. V. (2006). Early family trauma and the ontogeny of glucocorticoid stress response in the human child: grandmother as a secure base. Journal of Developmental Processes, 1, 31-68.

7. Beery, A. K., & Francis, D. D. (2011). Adaptive significance of natural variations in maternal care in rats: A translational perspective. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(7), 1552-1561. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.03.012

8. Macrì, S., & Würbel, H. (2006). Developmental plasticity of HPA and fear responses in rats: A critical review of the maternal mediation hypothesis. Hormones and behavior, 50(5), 667-680. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2006.06.015

9. Greenspan, S. I. (1997). The growth of the mind: And the endangered origins of intelligence. New York, NY: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc; Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.

10. Wilson, E. O. (2012). The social conquest of earth. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Company.

11. Price, A., Hiscock, H., & Gradisar, M. (2013). Let's help parents help themselves: A letter to the editor supporting the safety of behavioural sleep techniques. Early Human Development, 89(1), 39-40. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2012.07.018

12. Thomas, J. H., Moore, M., & Mindell, J. A. (2014). Controversies in behavioral treatment of sleep problems in young children. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 9(2), 251-259. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2014.02.004

13. Hiscock, H. (2010). Rock-a-bye baby? Parenting and infant sleep. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 14(2), 85-87. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2009.10.005

14. Price, A. M. H., Wake, M., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Hiscock, H. (2012). Five-year follow-up of harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep intervention: Randomized trial. Pediatrics, 130(4), 643-651. doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-3467

15. Sadeh, A., Tikotzky, L., & Scher, A. (2010). Parenting and infant sleep. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 14(2), 89-96. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2009.05.003