Researchers claim that "unsupportive parenting styles" can lead to accelerated aging in kids, but stress caused by social and economic backgrounds should be considered, too.


By Maressa Brown
June 04, 2019
woman with hands on hips about to discipline children
Credit: Shutterstock

June 4, 2019

Every mom and dad has to find the parenting style that works best for them and for their child. But when it comes to connecting with your little one in a "warm" way, you could be bolstering their wellness for years to come—not just mentally and emotionally, but physically, as well. A new study from the Loma Linda University School of Public Health concluded that when children saw their mother's parenting style as "cold," their telomeres—protective caps on the ends of the strands of DNA, sometimes referred to as a genetic clock—were, on average, 25 percent smaller. Shortened telomeres can bump up the risk of many diseases, as well as premature death. 

The study is based on data from 200 subjects who participated in two prospective cohort studies of Seventh-day Adventist men and women. One was the Adventist Health Study-1 (AHS-1) that was done in California in 1976, and the other was AHS-2, which included subjects from all over the United States and Canada, conducted between 2002-2007.

While the researchers' conclusion focused on mothers' impact specifically, they mentioned that "father’s parenting style had a similar direction" but was "smaller and non-significant." 

This study echoes and adds to previous studies that have shown early-life stress to be associated with shorter telomeres, which are a measurable biomarker of accelerated cellular aging and increased disease risk later in life. 

According to ScienceDaily, Raymond Knutsen, MD, MPH, lead author of the study and associate professor at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, explained, "The way someone is raised seems to tell a story that is intertwined with their genetics."

Also of note: Subjects who reported "cold parenting" and also had less education and a higher body mass index (BMI) than other subjects were more likely to feel the genetic effect, researchers noted. 

"The association with parenting style was greatest among those with less education, and those who stayed overweight/obese or put on weight during follow-up, suggesting both higher education and normal BMI may provide some resilience against cold parenting and cellular aging," the study stated.

Given that social and economic factors can limit educational opportunities, and stress can lead to weight gain, it seems as though more research needs to be done to show definitive cause and effect. At the same time, the researchers were taking the subjects' personal perception of their childhood into consideration, as opposed to concrete behaviors or actions. The definition of "cold" vs. "warm" parenting appears to have been subjective and relative. 

That said, researchers would do well to clarify how these findings should be perceived and acted upon by mothers who are, themselves, more stressed out than ever before. After all, in some cases, "cold" parenting may be the result of the fact that families, children, and moms are glaringly under-supported in the U.S. As sociologist Caitlyn Collins wrote in her study, "Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving," "American mothers stood out in their experience of crushing guilt and work-family conflict. American mothers attempt to solve this by changing jobs, becoming more efficient, or buying the right breast-pump. These are all 'individual strategies that approach child-rearing as a private responsibility and work-family conflict as a personal problem.'" 

There's certainly merit to better understanding just how much early-life stress can influence health. This study should serve to reassure many parents who are already going above and beyond to support and love their kids openly and warmly that they're right on-track.