Mothers and children naturally respond to their cues

Mothers and children

Mothers and children naturally respond to each others’ cues when they play together. Positive interactions are good for the child’s socioemotional development. The University of Illinois has just released a new study that examines how mother-child playtime affects physiological and behavioral reactions. These findings can be used to help parents, researchers, and practitioners understand the importance of communicating with their children.

“Our study measures real-time physiological and behavioral coordination between mothers and children while they’re interacting with each other,” said Yannan H, a doctoral student at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and the lead author of the paper. Researchers believe that physiological synchrony is beneficial to the child’s socioemotional growth. Our study is the first to link it with behavioral synchrony.

These findings indicate that mothers are more likely to experience physiological changes than their children, but this is only true for high-level behavioral coordination between mother and child.

Hu says that overall, when mothers are coordinated at the behavior level – they work together and take turns and share positive affect – the child’s physiological activity is in line with the physiological changes occurring in mom.

The study involved 110 mothers and their children aged 3 to 5. Participants were invited to the University of Illinois behavioral laboratory to engage in interactive play. First, mother and child worked together for five minute solving a 3-D puzzle. Next, the mother and child switched to pretend play with “pet doctor” toys.

The researchers provided wireless electrodes for mothers and children to monitor their parasymphathetic responses through high-frequency heart beat changes, also known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia. The play sessions were also recorded by the researchers. Trained observers coded mother and child behavioral coordination including sharing smiles, laughter, taking turns and responding to each others’ social cues.

Researchers say positive changes in RSA can indicate mothers and children being socially engaged and moving towards each other. Conversely, decreases in RSA may be observed when faced with a problem or stressor. Increases in the RSA of the mother are likely to reflect a greater engagement with her child, which then in turn will reciprocate.

Hu says, “We measured in real-time whether the mother and child were able to coordinate.” Hu says, “This tells us more about their interactions than the mom’s parenting behavior.” It is not just about how parents treat their children. For parents and children to have a coordinated interaction, they must be able to respond to the cues of their children.

Parents can take away the following information: It is important to listen to your children and be responsive during playtimes and other interactions.

“Another strength of this study is the focus on mother-child interaction during a positive play context,” comments Nancy McElwain HDFS professor and coauthor of the paper. Research often focuses on the ways parents can help their children manage negative emotions and behavior. This is important. Understanding how parents and their children interact to increase or maintain positive emotions and interactions is just as important. These positive processes can be understood in a context of play.

The study can help practitioners identify potential problems and early intervention.

Researchers are now expanding their research to include mothers and infants in order to study how brain development occurs during the first year. They also plan to conduct in-home virtual studies, which will allow for greater diversity and include fathers and other caregivers.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies can be found in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois.

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