A few weeks ago I wrote about identical twins, and how even genetically identical individuals become different because they will always have experiences that are unique to them . Indeed, the number of unique experiences that a person has is huge, and very different from those of anyone else. Thus, each of us becomes unique through our experiences.
So, how do experiences shape our personalities? If you’ve had an unpleasant experience, especially when you were younger, you may now avoid things involved with the experience – certain foods, stretches of road, even people. Mostly these are isolated exposures – a one-off when you were bitten by that nasty dog next-door – but sometimes the unpleasantness may continue.
Neuropsychology research has shown that when children are exposed continuously to unpleasant experiences, such as family violence, this can have a dramatic negative effect on their emotional well-being, ability to relate to others and cope with stressful situations later in life . This is because experience changes the way our brains work. It’s a bit like learning to catch a ball. If you are repeatedly exposed to the ball sailing through the air, you learn how to catch it. Behind the scenes, your brain is changing – the neural circuits that carry the ‘how to catch a ball’ information are formed. When we are exposed to negative experiences, our brains change too. We develop neural circuits encoding the behaviours to cope with the unpleasantness [3, for exquisite coverage of this topic see the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University].
Our brains are truly wonderful, though, because they also change positively in response to good experiences, including positive experiences with parents. In a new study , researchers followed a group of children from birth to late adolescence. When the children were 4 years old, parenting behaviour was assessed using a standardised test that measures things like: parent holds the child close, converses with the child, answers child verbally, scolds or physically punishes the child. When the children reached 15-18 years of age, they were then tested to see how well they coped with a stressful situation. Here, they had to write and then deliver a short speech promoting their candidacy for a summer job. The speech was videotaped and they were told they would be judged by their peers and a prospective employer.
The participants who had higher levels of parental responsiveness and nurturing had stress responses associated with lower aggression, and better coping mechanisms. By contrast participants with lower levels of parental responsiveness had stress responses associated with poorer coping, including externalising negative emotions brought on by the stress. Although more research is needed to determine how this happens, the upshot is that being nice to your kids is one of the best things you can do to maximise their chances of leading healthy and productive lives.