The Power of Positive Parenting

Positive Parenting Buffers Young People Against the Impacts of Stress

The intricate relationship between family dynamics and child development is a topic of increasing interest in the scientific community. A wealth of research is now dedicated to understanding how stress and adversities faced in early life can impact brain development, leading to cognitive, emotional, and systemic disorders that persist throughout an individual’s life. This research is shedding light on the profound influence of early-life experiences on future life.

Regrettably, the studies have unveiled the enduring and detrimental effects of early-life neglect and abuse on the developing brain and body. Such abuse can lead to difficulties in self-control and emotional regulation, hinder cognitive development, and increase the risk of cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune system diseases.

There is hope. The very sensitivity of the developing brain that makes it vulnerable to negative influences also makes it receptive to positive ones. This understanding is inspiring efforts to enhance the quality and consistency of nurturing parental care, offering a beacon of hope for better outcomes. This post aims to delve into the concept of positive parenting, a proactive approach that can potentially counteract the adverse effects of early-life stress and set the stage for healthier, happier futures.

Parenting with care and warmth may not only protect children from the hard knocks of life, but also shield them from the negative impact of stress. This is according to a recent article published in the medical journal PNAS Nexus, which found that “positive” parenting can have a protective effect on children aged 10-17 who experienced major stressors, such as illness, poverty, or the death of a loved one.

What is Positive Parenting?

Positive parenting is an approach focused on nurturing strong parent-child bonds, clear communication, and adaptive discipline strategies. For example:

  • Building a strong connection through affection and quality time together, like daily hugs and family game night.
  • Communicating respectfully by listening patiently and speaking calmly, even when frustrated.

The goal is to foster a warm, supportive environment where children feel loved unconditionally yet guided to make good choices. With positive parenting, discipline is focused on teaching rather than punishment.

Positive Parenting and Its Effects on Children’s Brains

Isabella Kahhalé (2023) studied nearly 482 young people, surveying them and examining MRIs of their brains. Researchers discovered that children who experienced “high levels” of positive parenting, defined as warm, supportive, validating, and responsive, didn’t suffer from behavior problems or decreased hippocampus volumes that are typically associated with stress. The hippocampus is a vulnerable area in the brain that plays a crucial role in learning and memory.

However, the protective effect was only observed in children who reported being parented positively. Children who reported a different parenting style parenting, even if their parents disagreed, didn’t experience significant protection against the consequences of stress.

Exposure to Adverse Events

Childhood stress is associated with detrimental effects on health and development. Exposure to adverse events early in life poses risks for behavioural problems and changes in brain structure, especially within corticolimbic circuitry important for stress regulation and cognitive-emotional functioning. However, positive and supportive relationships can moderate the consequences of stress. The study found that while higher levels of childhood stress were linked to smaller hippocampal volumes and greater youth behavioural problems, positive parenting reduced these associations.

The young people studied reported on their experiences of childhood stress, perceptions of positive parenting, and behavioural problems. Magnetic resonance imaging was used to obtain hippocampal volumes, and parenting was assessed through their reports.

The Impact of Stress diagram visual

Three major results identified linked to stress:

(i) negative life events and youth perceptions of positive parenting are associated with behavioural problems

(ii) negative life events are significantly associated with smaller hippocampal volumes

(iii) positive parenting moderates this association such that youth who reported high levels of positive parenting did not show smaller hippocampal volumes even with increasing levels of stress. Only youth perspectives of positive parenting interacted with childhood stress (measured through negative life events) to predict hippocampal volumes; caregiver report of positive parenting was not related to neurobiology as either a main effect or in an interaction with stress.

Such findings underscore the importance of including youth as reporters of their own experiences to better understand consequences for neurodevelopment and behavior. Our results align with a large body of work establishing connections between exposure to childhood stress and smaller hippocampal volumes, as well as the stress-buffering effect of high-quality parenting.

Positive Parenting and Emotional Regulation

Positive parenting likely provides stability and support for youth to develop skills in regulating emotions and behavior. This protective effect may function by modulating biological processes such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and cortisol reactivity, both of which influence hippocampal development. As written about in a previous post Parenting with a positive connection helps shape strategies for coping with stress through modelling emotional regulation, teaching active problem-solving, and promoting positive views of self and mastery over the environment.

When youth experience stress, positive parenting, characterised by warmth, support, and encouragement of autonomy, provides a secure base for them to return to for comfort and guidance.

The Neuroscience of Positive Parenting

Positive parenting is not only an art form but also grounded in neuroscience. Attachment specialist Daniel Hughes and clinical psychologist Jonathan Baylin, co-authors of the 2012 book Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment, argue that four factors form the basis of healthy caregiving:

  1. Playfulness: This is described as a “fully present intersubjective space” that leads to deep joy, pleasure, and fascination for both parent and child.
  2. Acceptance: Ideally, parents should love their children unconditionally, without evaluating them as “good” or “bad,” and focus on meeting their needs in the moment.
  3. Curiosity: Parents and infants are fascinated by each other from birth. This curiosity should develop into a quest for parents to fully understand their child – not who they want them to be, but who they are intrinsically.
  4. Empathy: This is considered “the other side of playfulness.” While playfulness helps regulate positive emotions together, empathy helps both parent and child regulate negative emotions as a pair.

These four factors strengthen each other, creating a more robust relationship that can handle the full range of human experiences without breaking.

What is the Impact of Stress on a Child’s Brain?

Research has shown that prolonged exposure to stress can have significant effects on a child’s brain development. This is often referred to as “toxic stress.”

Toxic stress can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support. This can include physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship.

The effects of toxic stress on a child’s brain can be profound and long-lasting. It can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “The prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and brain can have damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health across the lifespan.”

However, it’s important to note that not all stress is harmful. Positive stress, such as meeting new people or starting a new school, is a normal part of development and can help children learn and grow.

As discussed in this article the key factor that distinguishes toxic stress from normal stress is the presence of supportive relationships that help children cope with adversity. These relationships can buffer the impact of stress and provide the scaffolding needed for healthy development.

5 Books bout Positive Parenting.

“The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson: This book offers a groundbreaking approach to child rearing with twelve key strategies that foster healthy brain development, leading to calmer, happier children. The authors explain—and make accessible—the new science of how a child’s brain is wired and how it matures.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish: This classic parenting book provides effective, practical strategies for communicating with children, solving common problems, and building foundations of respect, empathy, and love.

Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive” by Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell: This book explores the extent to which our childhood experiences shape the way we parent. Drawing on stunning new findings in neurobiology and attachment research, it explains how interpersonal relationships directly impact the development of the brain, and offers parents a step-by-step approach to forming a deeper understanding of their own life stories to help them raise compassionate and resilient children.

No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson: This book highlights the fascinating link between a child’s neurological development and the way a parent reacts to misbehavior, providing an effective, compassionate road map for dealing with tantrums, tensions, and tears—without causing a scene.

Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide” by Rebecca Eanes: This book is a practical guide to help parents connect from the heart and foster deep and meaningful relationships with their children. It provides practical, non-punitive, and connection-based techniques that encourage mutual respect and empathy.


McEwen B. S. (2011). Effects of stress on the developing brain. Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science2011, 14. Accessed Online June 2023

Kahhalé, I., et al. (2023). Positive parenting moderates associations between childhood stress and corticolimbic structure. PNAS Nexus, 2(6), pgad145. Accessed Online June 2023

The Power of Positive Parenting: Shielding Children from the Impact of Stress

2 thoughts on “The Power of Positive Parenting”

  1. This article highlights the important role of positive parenting in buffering young people against the impacts of stress. It offers hope and emphasizes the profound influence of nurturing parental care on future life outcomes. The findings underscore the significance of supportive relationships in mitigating the detrimental effects of childhood stress. Overall, this post provides valuable insights into the power of positive parenting in fostering healthier, happier futures for children.
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  2. Pingback: The 4 Top Books About Learning Through Play for teachers and parents

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