Teenage Emotional Health May Be Linked to Parents’ Brains


Teenagers are notorious for arguing with their parents, slamming doors and allowing their emotions to get the best of them in certain situations.

However, their emotional competence has more to do with their parents than previously realized. A new paper reveals a parent-child dyad that can promote psychological health among teens and adolescents, when everyone is on the same page.

Credit: Moodboard/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The parent-child dyad has not previously been researched, and these new findings show that a parent’s brain and their child’s brain can fire in the same way. This “neural similarity” in the way their brain cells fire promote an emotional synchronicity, although this evidence is largely correlational. That being said, this provides an interesting insight into the emotional health of teens, based on their neural similarity to their parents.

Over 30 teens participated in the study, accompanied by their primary caregiver. The primary caregiver was their mother or father, as this experiment required a genetic relationship between the two subjects. While both genders of teens participated, the primary caregiver was largely female, with 90 percent of the subjects being mothers to the teens. The teens were split evenly down the middle, with 50 percent boys and 50 percent girls. The average age was 15 years old.

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To gauge each person’s pattern of neural firing across the brain, the participants were required to lay completely still while looking at a cross on a screen. The brain scan lasted six minutes, determining the connectivity between 13 different brain networks and providing each person with their own “unique brain fingerprint.”

Using these scans, the researchers compared similarities between the children and their parents. In addition, the participants each kept separate journals, filling out a questionnaire on their positive and negative moods, and answering questions to gauge their emotional competence by their ability to identify and describe their emotions.

While some parent-teen pairs showed no neural similarity whatsoever, others shared a very similar pattern of neural firing. It was these pairs that also reported similarly on their emotional competence questionnaires, and reported having similar moods at the same times.

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“We propose that children’s neural connectome is a psychological representation at the neural systems level, resulting from shared experiences with their primary caregiver,” the researchers said, led by Tae-Ho Lee of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

While these findings are very interesting, critics of the study question whether there can truly be a connection made, as the evidence presented is based on a self-reported questionnaire and cannot be directly linked to the similar brain scans. In addition, they question the validity of this study, wondering if there can be any way for this information to be utilized when mediating between parents and children.

The full study was published in NeuroImage and provides further information on the parent-child dyad and its relevancy.