Fathers’ and mothers’ brain changes linked to future social skills of their baby

This research is the first ever to show how a parent's brain has an impact on a child's survival and social development.

We recently carried out a study that found links between the strength of certain neural circuits in the brains of mothers and fathers of a baby and how socially skilled the baby is four years later as a pre-schooler.

One of the most interesting questions in the development of social species like humans is how the young acquire the relevant social skills that are necessary for their survival in the group and in the outside world.

The research included only primary caregivers parents – 20 biological mothers from heterosexual couples and 25 biological fathers from homosexual couples. There were no significant differences between these mothers and fathers, as we found in earlier research reported here.

We looked at activity in three central brain networks that support parental behaviour in humans. We scanned the brain while showing the parent home videos involving his/her child.

  1. The “emotional” brain network. This is an evolutionary ancient subcortical system, including the amygdala and other limbic regions. It is linked to instant emotional processing and responses, vigilance, motivation and immediate response to infant’s distress, and operates via “fight or flight” responses, danger and motivational signals.
  2. The “emotional empathy” brain network. This network enables an automatic understanding of the baby’s mental state, allowing the parent to “feel” and experience in herself/himself the physical pain or emotional distress of the baby. It involves the activation of “mirror neurons” mainly in the insular and cingulate cortex.
  3. The “cognitive empathy” brain network. This is a later developing circuit, including cortical and frontal brain areas, such as the superior temporal sulcus (STS). It is associated with understanding the needs and desires of others. In relation to caring for a child, it enables a parent to work out the child’s feelings from their behavior, to predict the child’ needs and to plan future caring activities.

In the children four years later, we measured two social competencies. The first was emotion regulation, the ability to manage increased negative or positive emotions. The second was socialization, the child’s willingness to comply with their parents instructions and to behave in line with normal social rules. Children mature substantially in both these areas during their preschool years.

We found that when the parents of the baby had greater connections in their “emotional” brain network, four years later the child showed happier emotions.

Meanwhile when the parents of the baby had greater connections in their “emotional empathy” brain network, four years later the child showed better control of negative emotions and more advanced ways of dealing with emotion, for example, through imaginary play and diverting attention from anxiety-provoking things.

In addition, when connections within the “cognitive empathy” brain network of the parent were stronger, the child later exhibited greater social skills.

The preschooler’s social and emotional skills were measured by observing how the child behaved in different situations – during free play with the parent, doing a tidy up task when told to by the parent, responding to a stranger with different masks (rabbit, lion, alligator, monster) and playing with bubbles.

These social skills in preschool children are important. Other research shows that children who are better able to control their emotions and behaviors are more sociable and more likely to enjoy good mental health and be more successful throughout life.

This research is the first ever to show how a parent’s brain has an impact on child’s survival and social development. It opens a new world of exploration how our brains “communicate” with each other.