The bond between kid and parent is stronger than fear | Science News



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Parents’ presence promotes a child’s pluck

Kids who are near a caregiver when exposed to an off-putting noise aren’t afraid of it later

6:30pm, March 27, 2018
fearful child

BRAVE IT OUT  Taming fear when a parent is nearby gives kids the confidence to be brave on their own. New research suggests that a caregiver’s presence dials down the brain’s threat-processing regions. 

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BOSTON — The bond between parent and child is powerful enough to override fear. New research shows that if a parent sits with a young child during a potentially scary situation, the child isn’t as afraid of it later.

The study is in line with research suggesting that during particular stages of development, a strong connection with a caregiver tamps down activity in the amygdala, the brain structure that helps process fear and spurs the fight-or-flight response.

“Fight or flight is pointless if you are tiny,” said developmental neuroscientist Nim Tottenham of Columbia University, who presented the work March 26 at a Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting. For young kids, the bond with a caregiver not only helps ensure survival but also makes kids feel safe, enabling them to approach the world with confidence, Tottenham said. “Attachment is a strategy that has worked very well; it trumps everything.”

Kids from ages 3 to 5 were shown two shapes — a green triangle and a blue square. Just the square was accompanied by a loud, fingers-on-the-chalkboard kind of noise. Some kids had a parent sitting next to them while they saw the shapes; others sat with a researcher. After the parents left, kids chose which door to go through to get a present: one with the scary blue square on it, the other with the innocuous green triangle.

Kids paired with the experimenter avoided the door with the blue square. But kids who had sat next to a parent showed a slight preference for that door, even though they knew they would collect the same present from behind either door.


N. Tottenham. Cortico-amygdala connectivity development: the importance of childhood. Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting, Boston, March 26, 2018.

Further Reading

L. Beil. Depression among new mothers is finally getting some attention. Science News. Vol. 193, March 17, 2018, p. 16.

L. Sanders. Brain holds more than one road to fear. Science News. Vol. 189, April 30, 2016, p. 16.

L. Sanders. Harsh conditions in childhood have long-term effects. Science News. Vol. 181, March 10, 2012, p. 9.

B. Bower. Attachment disorder draws closer look. Science News. Vol.157, May 27, 2000, p. 343.

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