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.