There’s new evidence that suggests children have an increased vulnerability to mental illness and substance abuse if their home environment is unstable.
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) have been looking into the concept that unpredictable parental behaviors, together with unpredictable environments, such as a lack of routines and frequent disasters, disrupt optimal emotional brain circuit development in children.
And that can lead to a greater chance of children and teens suffering from mental illness or falling into substance abuse, according to the findings.
The study says complex emotional and cognitive human behavior involves many decisions and actions and is also executed by brain circuits.
Lead author, Dr. Tallie Z. Baram, a distinguished professor in the Departments of Anatomy & Neurobiology, Pediatrics, Neurology, and Physiology & Biophysics, and Matthew T. Birnie, a postdoctoral researcher, says in early life, as these emotional circuits are developing, parents are the proximate primary environment.
“They are the source of information that influences the child’s brain maturation.
“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.”
Baram and her team are continuing to build on their research, including monitoring infants, children, and adolescents, and plan to test the discoveries in large-scale, ‘real-world’ research.
“It’s not only positive or negative parental signals but also the patterns of these behaviors and especially their predictability or unpredictability, that are linked to adverse outcomes such as poor emotional control in later life.
“The latter are indicators of higher risks for mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse,” said Dr. Baram.