Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff, an associate professor in human development and family studies, examines the long-term impacts of positive parenting. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Positive parenting produces lasting effects at biological level

Parents getting under a teen’s skin? It isn’t always a bad thing. When parenting is positive, it can have a lasting effect.

That’s according to Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff, an associate professor in human development and family studies at Iowa State University and the primary author of a newly released paper in the journal Developmental Science.

“Positive parenting and a safe and supportive environment sets a person up for years,” Shirtcliff said. “What parents do matters long-term — across a lot of different outcomes. They are actively shaping who their children are at a biological, and maybe even cellular, level.”

A social connection

While previous research suggested that adverse experiences negatively affected persons at the cellular level, Shirtcliff aimed to discover if the opposite were true.

As Shirtcliff and her co-authors state in the paper, the present study extends the body of research, examining whether positive social forces within the caregiving environment can also impact the function of the stress-responsive hormone cortisol.

“Cortisol helps us be engaged in social interactions,” Shirtcliff said. “We found that positive parenting predicted higher cortisol, which means that the social connection people have with their parents predicted an ability for connectedness and an openness to engage with others.”

While high levels of cortisol are sometimes associated with negative health outcomes such as weight gain, Shirtcliff explained that the hormone can also have positive effects — like keeping the body balanced during times of increased stress.

“Cortisol comes after the fight or flight response,” she said. “It prevents our physiology from over-shooting during stress, and keeps us well-regulated in the long run.”

Lasting effects

In the study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 300 eighth-graders from the Pacific Northwest were observed with their parents during structured interactions. Families participated in the Parents Who Care intervention program evaluated by the University of Washington’s Social Development Research Group.

Researchers led by principal investigator Kevin Haggerty, the group’s director, examined four measures of positive parenting: attachment, bonding, observed rewards for positive behavior, and teen perception of parent rewarding behavior. They then followed up with the teens as young adults, collecting their saliva to analyze cortisol levels.

“We found that youth who had stronger positive parenting as adolescents had higher waking cortisol six years later than youth with lower positive parenting,” the authors explain in their paper. “HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) effects were especially pronounced for youth with the very highest amount of attachment, bonding, or rewards.”

While examining the HPA effects, the authors found that the effects did not overlap. Rather, as they state in the paper, “the measures of positive parenting each had additive impact on HPA functioning even when simultaneously modeled; this suggests that measures of positive parenting are not all the same but rather may capture different or complementary ways of building on attachment.”

The good stuff matters

For Shirtcliff, the findings have a number of implications. She said that research related to attunement — or the observation that when people are connected to one another, they co-regulate their cortisol levels — bears this out.

“It’s the ability of the caregiver to establish these regulatory patterns when kids are young,” she said. “The kids then internalize the patterns, and are able to regulate themselves.”

Shirtcliff stressed that to create these positive outcomes, parents must be given the tools to raise their children within a nurturing atmosphere.

“Giving parents an environment where they can provide that support and provide that care is really important,” she said. “The good stuff of the parenting process matters.”