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The Problem with Being Really Stressed and Having a Fixed Mindset

New study shows that it’s better for stressed mothers to believe their children’s abilities can change
Mother and child line drawing

Maternal stress has been shown to negatively affect a baby’s brain development but less is known about the role protective factors — such as believing your child’s skills can change — may play.

This is what researchers, including Harvard Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Dana McCoy, Professor Charles Nelson, and Ph.D. candidate Wendy Wei, and Boston Medical Center pediatrician Mei Elansary, found in their new study that looks at how mothers experiencing high stress, combined with their beliefs about the malleability of skills and abilities, can impact brain development in the first year of life.

The studyMaternal Stress and Early Neurodevelopment: Exploring the Protective Role of Maternal Growth Mindset, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, proposes that maternal growth mindset — the belief that your child’s abilities and skills can change — can be a protective factor against the negative impacts of maternal stress on child neurodevelopment.

The data for the study came from study visits, where the researchers — which also included Boston Medical Center's Barry Zuckerman and York University's Lara Pierce — looked at the stress level of mothers and their growth mindset. They also looked at infant electroencephalography (EEGs) taken of 12-month-old babies while their mothers held them, and while they looked at a video showing infant toys. EEG measures brain activity and provides information about how the brain is developing. Researchers found the association between mothers’ reported stress and their infants' brain activity was different for mothers with fixed versus growth mindsets. For mothers with fixed mindsets, infant EEG activity was lower than when mothers reported high levels of stress. For mothers with growth mindset, there was no difference in infant EEG activity based on mothers’ reported stress levels. What this means, say McCoy, Wei, and Elansary — who sat down with Usable Knowledge to talk more about their study — is that developing interventions to promote maternal growth mindset in the first year of life could be a way to support mothers and children.

What is maternal stress and how can it negatively impact children's development?

The first year of a child’s life is typically a very stressful time for parents. Although some degree of stress is normal, there is evidence to suggest that high levels of stress — the kind that might get in the way of a mom’s ability to take care of, be responsive to, or create healthy attachments with her child — can be more problematic for children’s development.

What is maternal growth mindset compared to fixed mindset?

Maternal growth mindset is the belief that abilities can expand over time, through effort and strategy. Maternal fixed mindset is the belief that abilities are innate and stay the same over time, regardless of investment. The type of mindset a mother might have could affect how she engages with and responds to her child. For example, if a child has done poorly on a math exam, a mother with a growth mindset might explain, “You worked really hard on that exam. Let’s look at this together so we can learn from the questions you don’t understand yet.” A mother with a fixed mindset might make a statement such as, “It’s okay, you are just not a math person! I’m not a math person either!”

Can maternal growth mindset actually act as a protective factor in child development?

Research has shown that mothers with growth mindsets interact with their children in ways that promote learning. This may include parenting behaviors such as praising a child’s effort. For example, a mom with growth mindset might say, “You worked hard!” rather than offering a compliment such as “Wow! You are smart!” When children are praised for their efforts, they gain confidence and feel empowered to persevere on challenging tasks and try new things. When children are praised on innate characteristics, such as being smart, they may become afraid to challenge themselves and may not be as prepared to learn from failures.

Can mothers with a fixed mindset learn to develop growth mindset?

Absolutely! Research has shown that parents can be taught to hold growth mindsets through simple messaging such as, “Your child’s development is malleable and you can make a big difference in their learning!” There have been powerful effects of simple interventions like these on a wide range of student, parent, and teacher outcomes.

What are the next steps for the research and what might interventions look like for mothers with high maternal stress?

Our study shows that for mothers who have high levels of stress, having a growth mindset is protective for their infants’ brain development. In other words, moms’ growth mindsets may be able to buffer children’s brains from the negative impacts of stress. Future interventions for mothers with high maternal stress may promote growth mindsets by encouraging mothers that they can make a big difference in their child’s early learning and development.

In terms of next steps for research, we are continuing to follow these mothers and infants for six years to see whether maternal growth mindsets predict how children develop as they get a bit older.

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