Growing up amid adversity, encompassing elements like poverty, child maltreatment, and community violence, not only poses a significant risk for psychopathology and lifelong health challenges but also has been shown to accelerate the biological or epigenetic aging process in children.
However, a new study featuring research conducted in the lab of Professor Justin Parent, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island, has introduced a promising prospect. Positive parenting interventions might hold the key to slowing down or even reversing the accelerated biological aging experienced by children facing the repercussions of these adversities.
This research underscores the critical role of supportive parenting in mitigating the adverse effects, offering a pathway to a healthier and more resilient future for children facing these challenges.
Parent begins by explaining the concept of a biological clock, stating, “Our biological age or clock can sometimes tick faster than our chronological age.” This phenomenon is often exacerbated by experiences such as trauma, maltreatment, chronic stress, or living in high-violence neighborhoods – all of which can physically age a person faster than their chronological age would suggest.
Our biological clock is based on epigenetic aging, which is assessed through DNA methylation. Higher epigenetic age compared to chronological age predicts health issues, including mortality. Prior research has shown that early-life adversity is linked to increased epigenetic age acceleration. Whereas, sensitive and responsive caregiving serves as a stress buffer for young children, correlating with lower epigenetic age acceleration.
Dr. Alexandra Sullivan led this study, supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with researchers from URI, Florida International University, and Stanford University. It represents the first controlled assessment of the link between adversity exposure, parenting changes, and epigenetic age acceleration in at-risk preschoolers.
The participants included families with children facing delays in development and disruptive behavior that were randomly assigned to either receive parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) sessions via telehealth to learn positive parenting skills or to a control group.
In the intervention, therapists engage with families, providing real-time coaching to parents. The focus is on enhancing warmth and support while steering clear of negative parenting behaviors such as yelling or hitting.
Parent emphasizes the effectiveness of positive parenting programs, stating, “They reduce disruptive behavior, increase positive parenting skills, and help families feel less stressed.” What’s even more remarkable is the potential of these programs to slow down the biological aging process or, in some cases, reverse it. The study found that when parents increased positive and decreased negative parenting practices, children exposed to high levels of adversity displayed lower epigenetic age acceleration.
As the research continues at the University of Rhode Island, Parent’s team will continue to look into the epigenetic mechanisms of risk and resilience. Their ambitious goal is to develop a saliva-based biomarker that can identify children at risk for mental health struggles. With this information, they aim to provide families with biologically informed personalized prevention services, offering a potential breakthrough in early intervention strategies.
Parent hopes that the findings from this study will resonate beyond the scientific community, advocating for the crucial importance of supporting families and increasing access to services for those in need. As the research progresses, there is a collective hope that policymakers and stakeholders will prioritize these efforts, unlocking a brighter future for children facing adversity through the power of positive parenting.
Source: Alexandra D. W. Sullivan et al. Parenting Practices May Buffer the Impact of Adversity on Epigenetic Age Acceleration Among Young Children With Developmental Delays. Psychological Science, 2023 Oct;34(10).
Reference: Adversity accelerates epigenetic aging in children with developmental delays, but positive parenting can reverse course. University of Rhode Island. December 4, 2023.