Moments of joy shield the child from psychological problems

Tuula Tamminen (left), Reija Latva and Kaija Puura of the EMORE research group discovered that children who had experienced more joyful moments in infancy develop stronger social skills. The topic of the research is illustrated by six-month-old Aava Sipilä who has come to a meeting at work with her mother.

The mother’s contentment with her own life has an effect on the child’s mental development.

If the mother has experienced contentment and creativity in the early interaction with the child, it predicts better social skills in the child. This was reported by both the mother and father.

– The children of mothers who experienced discontent had more psychological symptoms two years later, says Mirjami Mäntymaa MD.

Early joy and interaction protect and strengthen the development of the child’s emotion regulation.

This was discovered in a University of Tampere research project which investigates the child’s emotion regulation and mental development in early interaction. The research uses several data the main part of which consists of video data of mother-child interaction.

– Depression is a huge problem in Finland. If there are protective factors to be found in the generational chain of early parenthood they would have a great impact on the national health, says the Director of the EMORE project, Professor of Child Psychiatry Tuula Tamminen.

Problem families lack moments of joy

The researchers were surprised by the fact that some mother-child dyads had very little or no such situations where the mother and child looked at each other and had fun together.

– I was surprised by the variety in the numbers of moments of joy, says Mirjami Mäntymaa.

It was discovered that if the mother is unable to build moments of joy, the baby cannot do it all by her or himself.

The moments of joy are brief. At the age of seven months, the average shared moment of joy lasted for two seconds.

– It will be interesting to see in later tests whether the amount of joy affects the children’s ability to perceive positive feelings says Kaija Puura, a Docent of Child Psychiatry.

In the research the children’s problems were defined by using different child psychiatric indicators: Does the child only have some problems and do they interfere with his or her development and growth or does he or she have a psychiatric disorder. Everything in between these two extremes seemed to happen to the children involved in the research.

One incentive of doing the research was the fact that it would provide means to do clinical work.

– What the different kinds of problem families often lack are in particular the moments of shared pleasure. Maybe it would be possible to help these families through fun, Puura says.

The father also matters

Because of resources, the research focused on mother-child interaction and the meaning of the mother is naturally great for the child in early infancy.

However, the father also influences child development right from the start.

– Of course it does not all fall on the mother. The father’s influence is very important in supporting the mother and even on her hormonal balance, says Tuula Tamminen.

Child development is affected by genetics, life events and the whole family community. But according to the research group, such large data can be used to analyze whether this particular factor, shared enjoyment, has its own impact separate from the other factors.

– It seems to have that effect, the researchers say.

The genes involved in the metabolism of serotonin and oxytocin were also genotyped in the mother-child dyads in Kaija Puura’s and Mirjami Mäntymaa’s data.

– So it is possible to research whether the quantity or quality of shared moments of joy has something to do with the child’s social development and whether this is connected to the genotypes of these two neurotransmitters, Puura says.

Emotion regulation is learned from parents

A lot of risk factors, traumas and problems are analyzed in the field of child psychiatry. Now the research data gathered for these purposes have been looked at through another angle and early interaction has been investigated from the perspective of preventative factors.

– We often imagine that humans are creatures who act on the basis of information and know-how. But 90 or 95 per cent of what we do in our lives has to do with emotions, says Professor Tuula Tamminen.

The ability to understand and regulate emotions is learned in interaction. Children learn it in interaction with their parents and the people who care for them, but learning is a path that runs through the whole life.

There is little talk for example about how to control a child’s anger without fists flying.

– The children are taught not to use their fists even when they are angry. At the same time, we need to take account of the emotion, i.e. help the child to calm down, Tamminen says.