Anyone who knows a little about pedagogy knows that the most important age for a child’s cognitive development is the one that goes from 0 to 6 years. During these years of their lives, children develop the cognitive, social, and emotional skills that underlie their development into adulthood.
In this very delicate phase of life, there are many risk factors and beneficial factors that come into play. Based on the evolutionary origins of health and disease (the Barker hypothesis), exposure to environmental stressors during critical life periods may reflect negative long-term consequences for children’s health and development. Theory, especially complex and chronic diseases in adults goes back to fetal and pediatric age.
Parental stress, for example caused by a number of social and environmental factors, can have serious short- and long-term effects on children, increasing their risk of becoming ill and suffering from behavioral problems.
That familieshowever, they can also have an important protective and preventive function against the negative effects of stress on the child’s development. Based on what has been demonstrated by various studies, e.g. older brothers it can reduce the occurrence of behavioral problems in children, or mitigate the negative consequences of stressful events that children experience, due to the positive role they play in the growth of the younger brother / sister.
A research team in Leipzig, consisting of researchers from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ), the University of Leipzig (UL), the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI EVA) and the German Center for Research in Integrative Biodiversity (iDiv), investigated the relationship between parents stress and children’s behavioral problems and the benefits of the presence of older siblings directly or indirectly on developing children. Specifically, the researchers examined the effects of various socio-environmental stressors on maternal stress levels, the dynamic relationship between maternal stress (including prenatal stress) and infant behavioral problems during development, and the protective function and / or promotion that older siblings may have. during the child’s development. The results were published in the scientific journal BMC Public Health.
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Researchers used longitudinal data from the LINA cohort (Lifestyle and environmental factors and their influence on neonatal allergy risk) by studying 373 German mother-infant couples (188 daughters, 185 sons) from pregnancy to 10 years of age. Mothers were asked to complete three questionnaires to assess their stress levels and their child’s behavioral problems (internalization and externalization). First, the researchers assessed the social and environmental factors that led to increased stress levels for mothers during pregnancy and the long-term consequences of maternal stress at the onset of infant behavioral problems. Second, they assessed whether the presence of siblings had a positive effect on the onset of behavioral problems in childhood, which directly reduced stress levels and increased children’s psychological well-being or indirectly mitigated the negative consequences of mothers’ stress.
Prenatal stress can cause cognitive and behavioral problems in the baby
The results of the study showed that maternal stress can have a negative impact on the development of the baby already in the womb and even before conception. This, ie the consequences for fetal development, is possible through an increase in stress hormones during pregnancy, inflammation of the placenta, etc. It can also alter the fetal immune system, affect the outcome of childbirth and lead to various diseases in childhood, such as obesity or wheezing.
In addition, prenatal stress can also have negative effects on the offspring’s psychosocial development as well as on brain and cognitive development and may increase the likelihood of behavioral problems in childhood, including attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder, behavioral disorders that also lead to the onset of autism, depression and schizophrenia in children. Mothers who experienced high levels of stress in the study, such as worry, loss of joy, or excitement, during pregnancy were also more likely to report the onset of internalization (e.g., anxiety, low self-esteem), and / or externalizing behavioral problems (f eg hyperactivity). , aggression) when their children were 7, 8 or 10 years old.
The importance of the environmental context
Partly in line with this hypothesis, the researchers observed that mothers reported higher levels of stress when they were dissatisfied with the quality of the environment in which they lived. In particular, the lack of adequate social areas in the neighborhood (including playgrounds, youth meeting places, and cultural activities) resulted in significantly higher levels of maternal stress. Conversely, other potential stressors (e.g., poor quality of relationships with neighbors, poor quality of the natural environment, poor safety, lack of infrastructure) did not lead to significant levels of maternal stress.
Previous research has already shown a consistent correlation between environmental quality (eg air pollution, lack of green spaces) and individual stress levels. In this study, the presence of social gatherings and cultural offerings in the neighborhood (rather than the quality of the natural environment) had a more positive impact on the mother’s stress level.
“The results of our study – explained Federica Amici (UL, MPI-EVA) – confirm the previous findings about the negative impact that even mild forms of prenatal stress can have on a child’s behavior, even after years, and highlight” the importance of policies for early intervention that increases maternal well-being and reduces the risk of maternal stress already during pregnancy.
Behavioral problems are more common among sons
Analysis of the questionnaires showed that mothers were more likely to report behavioral problems than the husband. The results are not surprising, as it has been repeatedly reported by experts that sons exhibit more behavioral problems than daughters, especially in terms of hyperactivity and lack of attention.
In our view, however, these findings should warn us about the risk that current child behavior questionnaires may inappropriately classify male behavior as problematic (or even signs of severe behavioral disorders), simply because children’s needs (both boys and girls) are unlikely. to be met in modern western cultures ”.
Older siblings promote the healthy development of the child
German research also found a lower incidence of behavioral problems in children with older siblings. In particular, mothers, in the absence of older siblings, regardless of their stress level and the gender of the child, were generally more likely to report children’s behavioral problems. Therefore, the results of the study suggest that the presence of older brothers it generally reduces the likelihood of younger siblings developing behavioral problems in childhood, but does not significantly relieve maternal stress.
“Children who have older brothers or sisters in their families – explained Gunda Herberth (UFZ), study coordinator – are less likely to develop problems, suggesting that siblings are the key to promoting healthy children’s development.”
How older siblings reduce the risk of behavioral problems in the child
In the interaction with older siblings, children are able to develop better emotional, perspective and problem-solving skills due to greater social competence and emotional understanding even later in life. In addition, having older siblings can offer learning opportunities for parents who could develop different expectations and better parenting skills. Parents with previous experience with teenage children, for example, are less likely to expect behavioral problems in adolescence in younger children. Therefore, a lower incidence of behavioral problems in children with older siblings may also be due to different expectations and better parenting skills.
“We were particularly impressed with the important role that siblings seem to play in the child’s healthy development,” concluded Anja Widdig (UL, MPI-EVA, iDiv) -. We hope that our findings will highlight the importance of public health policies that directly address children and their siblings and promote a healthy environment for their well-being and the development of high-quality sibling relationships. “