Parents reading with children

Parents have long known that giving children a regular routine can help them learn good habits, but a new study from researchers at the University of California at Irvine has found evidence that having a “predictable” early life can be beneficial to a child’s brain development. And having predictable parents might be the key factor.

The study, which was published in Science magazine, focuses on the neurological effects of a predictable early life and how this impacts brain development. Building on years of research from multiple other studies, including their own, UC Irvine neuroscientists Matthew T. Birnie and Tallie Z. Baram looked at the long-term effects of predictable parent actions on children’s brain development later in life.

According to the study, when a child experiences unpredictable behavior from their parent, they are more likely to develop an inability to control emotions and are more vulnerable to mental stress disorders later in life.

On the other hand, predictable behavior may strengthen one’s ability to control emotions and handle stress.

Here’s how the scientists describe it in the actual study: “In humans, unpredictable (high entropy) sequences of maternal sensory signals to the infant predict enduring adverse emotional outcomes, including poorer control of emotions and behaviors, an established predictor of mental vulnerabilities and risk of posttraumatic stress disorder later in life.”

In simpler language, Baram says it this way, writing in The Conversation:

“Across all our animal and human studies, we found that predictable parental behavior patterns led to better emotional and cognitive functioning in their children later in life. While our studies have focused primarily on mothers, it is very likely that the same principles apply to fathers as well.”

The reason this may happen is that young children’s brains are still forming emotional circuits that control feelings like stress and fear. Given that parents normally have the most interaction with a child, their behavior - and predictability - has the greatest effect on the child’s neural development.

The study suggests that when children experience unpredictable emotional experiences, the areas of the brain handling those experiences have to react differently, which can cause changes in the brain’s circuitry development. This results in the child having a more unpredictable response to stressful situations later in life.

In addition to creating a nurturing environment with regular routines, parents can further help their children develop positively by being reliable and consistent in their behavior towards their children, as well. This makes intuitive sense, as well; when children know their parents will be there for them during times of stress and can be counted on, they are more likely to be that way when they get older.

“What’s significant about this research is that it identifies new targets for intervention and helps us think of measures we can put in place to best support the development of mentally and cognitively healthy children,” Baram said in a UCI press release. “Unpredictability is actionable because we can aim to inform and educate parents, caregivers and others about the importance of predictable signals and environments to infants’ and children’s brain maturation.”

Of course, life can be complicated and parents can find themselves in situations where being predictable is impossible. The key is to strive to have general consistency and stability.

“There are many adversities beyond a parent’s control that can impact the developing of a child, such as poverty, war and migration,” Baram said. “However, being aware of the role that predictable and consistent behavior plays in brain development can help parents create an optimal environment for their child as they grow emotionally.”