A recent article in the American J. of Psychiatry provides yet another reason why investing early in helping parents be more reflective pays off in big dividends later on.Many economists calculate that the rate of return on investment can be as high as 12% for the community. That is a lot of bang for your buck.
Investing early to help parents be more reflective pays off double in the long run. It promotes positive development for the life of the child; and saves money for the community by lowering the costs of mental health, medical and social welfare services when these children grow up.
The ‘secret sauce’ is strengthening a parent’s reflective capacity. A reflective parent is more effective in regulating their child’s level of stress because they are better at creating a sense of safety and comfort in times of danger and emotional distress. In fact it it is even better for a child if all their care providers are reflective and can help regulate them in this way.
Reflective parents can protect their child from a cascade of problems. When a child has too much stress or is highly reactive to stress but does not have someone who can help calm them down, it can increase a child’s inflammatory response. This in turn can increase a child’s vulnerability to develop depression and physical illness. Parents are not the whole solution but they help a lot.
Here is how it works. Inflammation occurs when chemicals called cytokines are released by stress as well as by injury and infection. If cytokines are not kept under control they are likely to cause harm to the brain and body. Examples are cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, chronic pain and depression. This is because cytokines can impair brain activity in regions that regulate a person’s mood, motivation, motor function and body physiology. Reflective parents can contribute to less inflamation by regulating a child’s stress.
Some stress is actually good because it regulates inflammation. A well-functioning stress response releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol keeps inflammation and cytokines in check. Unfortunately chronic stress, or insufficient stress regulation can cause inflammation to run amok and interfere with the health of child’s brain, mind and body. This is why a reflective parent does not try to eliminate all stress from a child’s life, but just helps regulate the stress.
The benefit is highest for kids growing up in adverse circumstances. Kids growing up in disadvantaged environments, (e.g., poverty, trauma, neglect, violence, or substance abuse) have the most to gain. Providing these kids with parents, family and others who can be reflective and adequately protect, calm and soothe them contributes to preventing these kids from developing physical illness, mental health problems and even school difficulties.
Reference: Amer. J. Psychiatry 2015; 172:1075–1091.