According to a neuroimaging study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, children whose mothers are more critical toward them show reduced brain activity in response to monetary rewards and losses. The findings suggest that criticism from parents may impair the way children respond to environmental cues.
Parenting styles can influence the way children develop in a myriad of ways, affecting cognitive functioning, behavior, and psychological symptoms. For example, it has been suggested that children who are often criticized by their parents are more likely to develop psychopathology, although the neural mechanism behind this effect remains unknown.
Researchers Kiera M. James and her colleagues wanted to explore whether the link between criticism and poor child outcomes may have to do with children’s neural responses to reward and punishment. Children learn these responses through experiences with their environment, and studies have suggested that psychopathology is associated with blunted neural reactivity to gains and increased reactivity to losses.
The researchers recruited 202 children and their mothers to take part in a laboratory study. The children, who were between the ages of 7 and 11, participated in a guessing task called the Doors task, which measures reactivity to gains and losses. The task has children choose between two doors that may or may not have a monetary prize behind them, while brain activity is recorded via electroencephalography (EEG). The children’s reactivity to receiving a loss or reward is measured with the reward positivity (RewP) event-related potential (ERP).
To measure mothers’ expressions of criticism toward their children, the mothers were prompted to speak about their children for five minutes without interruption. Levels of criticism and negativity toward the child were later assessed by independent raters.
Overall, children across the sample showed higher reactivity to gains than losses, as demonstrated by larger RewP amplitudes. However, children whose mothers scored higher in expressed emotion criticism showed blunted reactivity to both rewards and losses, compared to children whose mothers scored lower in expressed emotion criticism. These findings remained significant after accounting for mothers’ and children’s anxiety and depression — suggesting the effect could not be explained by mothers’ or children’s internalizing symptoms.
The study authors say that these findings suggest that maternal criticism can impact children’s adaptive development. “When viewed within the context of reinforcement learning processes (Nussenbaum & Hartley, 2019), the current results suggest that children of critical mothers are not responding to environmental experiences in a way that promotes learning from those experiences,” James and her team write.
“If replicated and extended in longitudinal research, this disruption in adaptive responses to environmental experiences during childhood may be one mechanism for the development of negative outcomes that surge during adolescence such as depression,” the study authors add, noting that both reduced reactivity to reward and maternal criticism have been tied to depression in adolescents.
The generalizability of the findings is limited given that the researchers only assessed mothers’ criticism and not fathers’. Still, if the findings are replicated, James and her colleagues suggest that targeting parental criticism through family therapy may be one way to alter children’s responses to rewards and losses, potentially impacting risk of psychopathology.
The study, “Maternal criticism and children’s neural responses to reward and loss”, was authored by Kiera M. James, Claire E. Foster, Aliona Tsypes, Max Owens, and Brandon E. Gibb.