American children are more stressed out than their parents, according to a recently released survey by the American Psychological Association. But when it comes to helping kids overcome all that stress, can the sound of a mother’s voice be just what the doctor ordered?
In some cases, yes, according to a study that looked at how varying types of mother/daughter interactions affected stress levels in a small group of preteen girls. The girls were asked to solve very difficult math problems in front of an audience of intently watching adults. When they finished, each girl spoke with her mother: either face-to-face, over the phone or via text or instant messenger. During these interactions, researchers studied the hormonal balance of each child, noting instances where hormones linked to strong emotions were produced.
When compared with the group that only had digital interactions, girls who saw their mothers, or at least heard her voice over the phone, had lower levels of cortisol—the “stress” hormone—and higher levels of oxytocin—affectionately called the “love hormone.” (When we hug or kiss someone, our oxytocin level spikes. It also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, playing a large role in how our brain processes our bonding relationships.)
“When we’re stressed, it’s natural to want to reach out to our loved ones, but there’s more to human interaction than exchanging words,” says Director of Mental Health Services Roslyn Murov, MD, from Boston Children’s at Martha Eliot Health Center. “In the digital age, we have constant access to each other, but when it comes to triggering natural, calming reactions in our bodies, talking to each other seems to have the most impact. Our biology hasn’t quite caught up to our technology use yet.”
In her practice, Murov sees many patients who are dealing with high cortisol levels, and says any efforts parents can make to help their children better manage their stress level is time well spent. “If you know your child is having a difficult time in school or with friends, bringing the topic up and doing your best to talk her through it may go further than you think,” she says. (Car rides can be a great time for these conversations—there are typically fewer distractions than at home and you’ve got a captive audience.)
And though this study only focused on the communication habits of mothers and daughters, Murov says fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles and friends—anyone a young person looks to for support—are likely to make a positive impact as well.
“Strong, open lines of communication between people and their support groups are important regardless of age or familial relation,” she says. “Whether you’re the person having a hard time, or the one talking someone through a rough patch, any opportunity to strengthen the bonds that connect us is an opportunity worth taking.”