Normative Range Parenting and the Developing Brain: Investigating the Functional and Structural Neural Correlates of Parenting in the Absence of Trauma

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2022

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Abstract

Research on extreme deviations in early life caregiving has provided valuable insight into the effects of early adversity on brain development and risk for psychopathology. However, much remains unknown about the impact of normative range variation in parenting on these same processes. The primary aim of this dissertation is to begin to address this gap in the literature.

I first examined associations between variability in family functioning and threat-related amygdala reactivity. Analyses revealed that greater familial affective responsiveness was associated with increased amygdala reactivity to explicit, interpersonal threat. Moreover, this association was moderated by the experience of recent stressful life events such that higher affective responsiveness was associated with higher amygdala reactivity in adolescents reporting low but not high stress. I hypothesized that these paradoxical associations may suggest a mechanism through which parental overprotection manifests as psychosocial dysfunction. Centering this hypothesis as the focus of my next study, I examined more detailed aspects of both early caregiving experiences and corticolimbic circuitry. Analyses revealed that participants who reported higher maternal control exhibited increased amygdala reactivity to explicit, interpersonal threat and decreased structural integrity of the uncinate fasciculus. While not a direct replication, these findings supported my hypotheses regarding parental overprotection and expanded Study 1 findings into structural connectivity between the amygdala and regulatory regions of the prefrontal cortex.

I next conducted a scoping review of the extant literature centered on the question, “Is variability in normative range parenting associated with variability in brain structure and function?” This review yielded 23 records for qualitative review and revealed not only how few studies have explored associations between brain development and normative range parenting, but also how little methodological consistency exists across published studies. In light of these limitations, I proposed recommendations for future research on normative range parenting and brain development and highlighted a path forward. Lastly, I applied these recommendations to my own empirical analyses. In the same sample of young adults used in Study 2, I examined associations among parental care and control, neural structural phenotypes, and mood and anxiety symptoms. Analyses revealed no significant associations among parenting and structural indices of interest, suggesting that neural structure is robust to more subtle variability in parenting even while neural function is not.

This dissertation provides critical first steps in empirically investigating how normative parenting shapes brain development with the data currently available. Further, it highlights the work of others similarly investigating this question and establishes an agenda for advancing future research on this topic.

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Farber, Madeline (2022). Normative Range Parenting and the Developing Brain: Investigating the Functional and Structural Neural Correlates of Parenting in the Absence of Trauma. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25738.

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