New research published in Psychological Science has revealed that positive parenting interventions can potentially slow down the epigenetic aging process in children who have experienced adversity during their early years. The study, led by Dr. Alexandra Sullivan and researchers from the University of Rhode Island, Florida International University, and Stanford University, found that enhancing positive parenting through a family-centered program resulted in lower levels of accelerated biological aging in children with high levels of adversity. These findings highlight the potential of positive parenting programs in building resilience and reversing the negative effects of hardship.
The study focused on children with delays in development and disruptive behavior. Families were randomized into two groups: one receiving parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) sessions through telehealth to learn positive parenting skills, and a control group. During the intervention, therapists interacted with families, providing real-time coaching to parents on increasing warmth and support while avoiding negative parenting behaviors such as yelling or hitting.
“We know positive parenting programs like this work. They reduce disruptive behavior, increase positive parenting skills, and help families feel less stressed,” said Justin Parent, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island. “Now, from this study, we are beginning to learn that increases in positive parenting for children with higher adversity have the potential to slow this biological aging process or potentially reverse it. Children exposed to high levels of adversity displayed lower epigenetic age acceleration when parents increased positive and decreased negative parenting practices.”
The research highlights the impact of adverse experiences, such as trauma, maltreatment, chronic stress, and living in violent neighborhoods, on biological aging. These experiences can cause premature aging, leading to health issues later in life. The study aimed to investigate whether supporting families facing adversity and increasing positive parenting behaviors could mitigate these effects.
Dr. Parent plans to expand the study at the University of Rhode Island, focusing on exploring the epigenetic mechanisms of risk and resilience. His research aims to develop a saliva-based biomarker for identifying children at risk for mental health struggles, and to provide biologically informed personalized prevention services for families.
“I hope this provides support for the importance of helping families and increasing access to services for families in need,” said Dr. Parent. “Hopefully, policymakers and others will prioritize this.”
The findings of this study highlight the potential of positive parenting interventions in promoting resilience and preventing premature aging in children who have faced adversity. By equipping parents with the skills to provide emotional support and nurturing environments, the impact of adverse experiences can be mitigated, leading to healthier outcomes for children in the long term.
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