Perception Is Everything When It Comes to Child Development, New Study Says

A Boston Children's study found that a mother's perception of her social situation is important for her child's brain development.

Mother and child image via Shutterstock.

Mother and child image via Shutterstock.

Perception, it turns out, is everything. According to a new study by Boston Children’s researchers, a mother’s perceived social status may be more important than her actual socioeconomic status when it comes to predicting her child’s brain development and stress levels.

In a study published last week in the journal Developmental Science, Boston Children’s researchers explained that a mother’s perceived socioeconomic status can have an effect on her child’s brain development. In the study, children whose mothers saw themselves as having low social status were more likely to have increased cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels are an indicator of stress. Those children also showed less activation in the hippocampus region of the brain, which is the area in the brain devoted to long-term memory formation and the reduction of stress responses. The hippocampus is required for learning.

Margaret Sheridan, the study’s lead author, said in a Boston Children’s report that she was most interested in the effects of a mother’s perceptions of her own social status, rather than her social status in and of itself:

“We know that there are big disparities among people in income and education,” says Sheridan. “Our results indicate that a mother’s perception of her social status ‘lives’ biologically in her children.”

Sheridan and her colleagues studied 38 children between eight and 12 years old. The children gave saliva samples to measure cortisol levels, and 19 of them also underwent a functional MRI to measure activity in the hippocampus. The children’s mothers rated themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 on measures that compared them to the people around them.

Results showed that the children’s stress responses were related to their mother’s self-perceived social statuses. The lower the mother’s perceived social status was, the more elevated the stress responses and levels of cortisol in the child were. The mother’s perceived social status also predicted the degree of hippocampus activity in her children, with mothers who perceived themselves to be lower on the social ladder producing children with less hippocampal activity.

In contrast, the study reported that actual maternal education or income levels had nothing to do with the cortisol levels of the children, or with their hippocampal activation. The authors of the study concluded that while actual socioeconomic status may vary, how people perceive and adapt to their situations is what is most important for child development.