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As a parent, you’re likely all-too familiar with the stresses that come along with raising a kid. Whether it’s getting a moment’s peace during nap time, or getting two shoes on your kid’s feet before you’re out the door in the morning, even the most patient of parents have their days. But a new study has found one more reason for you to offer support: It could affect your child’s brain development.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that school-age kids whose mothers supported and nurtured them in early childhood had a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory, learning, and how we handle stress.

In the study, researchers conducted an experiment in which kids, ages 3 to 5, were left in a room with a brightly wrapped package and told that they could open it, but had to wait until Mom finished filling out a series of forms. Researchers then observed how the child and parent handled the situation, and the moms were scored on how well they helped their child through the stress of the task. Did they offer assurance and support, or did they ignore or scold their child?

When researchers brought the kids back several years later (between ages 7 and 13) for brain scans, they found that those whose mothers had been most supportive had a larger hippocampus—by nearly 10 percent!—than the kids with less nurturing mothers. Since the hippocampus is crucial for regulating stress and recording and processing memory, researchers believe the findings show that how a kid is raised could link directly to how his brain handles social situations and how he performs in school.

Of course, we’re all human and have our breaking points, so occasionally losing patience and snapping at your child won’t cause her brain to shrink—brains take years to fully develop, so it’s the overall quality of the parent-child relationship that matters, researchers say. And not only will offering your child love and support strengthen the bond between you, it could even boost your own brain size—research has shown that women’s brains may actually increase in size in new motherhood.

Here, two simple ways to nurture your child:

  • Praise her the “right way” Studies show that students praised for their efforts perform better than those praised for their intelligence, since the former reinforces the idea that a child can control how well he does based on how hard he works (rather than how good he “naturally” is at something). “The more you recognize when your child puts effort into something, the more likely he’ll be to succeed in the future,” says Ann Dolin, author of Homework Made Simple.
  • Respond with sensitivity This popular Attachment Parenting International (API) principle can be tricky during a bedtime tantrum, but remember that kids tend to model their parents behavior, for better or worse. If it’s an action, or reaction your child has seen, chances are she’ll remember it—and you’ll see it again coming from her. So the next time your child refuses to try that broccoli, remember that his brain is still developing—and lashing out is just a way of handling his emotions. Try your best to remain calm, and comfort him instead of punishing him, recommends the API.

 

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