Part of your job as a parent is to teach your children, and there’s no way for a child to learn anything without making a few mistakes. Actually, a lot of mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes can be infuriating. They might be self-destructive mistakes. They might be mistakes that can cause harm to their siblings or classmates. They might be mistakes that happen over and over again. They might be mistakes that seem intentionally designed to press your buttons.
Part of being a good parent is to get the message across without being overly critical. It seems like being a naggy nancy (or naggy nelson) may have adverse effects on your child’s brain.
Two experiments bring the point home:
During one study performed in Binghamton, New York, researchers observed parents speaking to their pre-teen children (without the parents or children being aware they were being spied on). The scientists rated the parents on level of criticism. Then, the researchers measured the children’s brain activity as they viewed a series of pictures of faces showing different emotions. Children of highly critical parents had deactivation of their brains’ widespread areas when looking at emotional pictures.
This research’s implications are that criticism can be so emotionally painful and perhaps damaging because it shuts down large parts of the brain.
During another study, performed at the University of Pittsburgh in 2015 adolescent volunteers underwent functional MRI (fMRI — a special magnetic resonance image that gauges the activity of different brain areas) while listening to their mothers’ voices. The teenagers underwent the fMRIs three times; once while hearing their mothers praise them, a second time when they were being severely criticized, and finally while they were being spoken to about an emotionally neutral topic.
fMRI revealed increased activation of two brain areas during maternal criticism: the ventral and dorsal striatum (part of the brain’s reward system) and the insular cortex (a part of the brain that is active during psychological conflicts).
fMRI revealed maternal criticism decreased activity in other parts of brain: the precuneus (a brain region that allows us to feel in control of our own actions and the events in the external world), the cingulate gyrus (a brain area involved with emotion, learning, and memory) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain that controls executive functions).
This study implies that overly harsh parental criticism affects teenagers’ brains in a counterproductive manner: It turns on the emotional areas of teenagers’ brains (increased emotional reactivity) while it turns off the logical, memory, and control areas of teenagers’ brains (decreased cognitive control and social cognitive processing).
Taken together, the studies demonstrate that overly critical parenting has unintended negative effects on children’s brains. Nagging shuts down wide swaths of kids’ brains, which can be emotionally painful and cause a child to disengage from the world around them.
As the child enters the teenage years and the brain reactions become more complex, the brain’s deactivated part may be better identified: those regions most responsible for memory, logic, and self-control. Other parts of teenage brains become disinhibited by excessive criticism: areas that react to reward and conflict. So, the nagged adolescent is prone to outbursts of potentially self-destructive emotion.
Hey, no one said parenting was easy.
Marc Arginteanu is a neurosurgeon.
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