We know your relationship with your parents can affect a lot about who you are as you grow up. But is it possible that the good and bad of that relationship could actually show up in your saliva?

That's the bizarre-but-important question a team of researchers recently asked, the results of which were published in Developmental Science.

Led by Elizabeth Shirtcliff, an associate professor from Iowa State University who studies early childhood adversity, the study gathered 300 8th-grade kids and used a simple survey to determine some basic facts about their parents. The kids were asked things like whether they were close with their parents and how often positive reinforcement was used in their household.


The team was looking for signs of what they called "positive parenting, attachment, and bonding."

Six years later, the kids — now adults — were brought back in for a strange follow-up. The researchers collected a dozen different samples of their saliva.

It sounds a little gross, but they were looking for something important: the presence of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is crucial to our overall well-being. Lower levels of cortisol are correlated with fatigue, mood swings, and muscle loss, for example. Higher levels of cortisol correlate with healthy blood pressure levels and better immune system function (though extremely high levels are a health risk).

For this study, cortisol was particularly important because it plays a big role in how we process and react to stress. When we're faced with extreme stress or danger, cortisol floods our bodies, resulting in the "fight or flight," response.

The study's authors observed that people who are generally more stressed over longer periods of time, however, often show lower cortisol levels — almost like they get accustomed to all that stress over time and have a lesser reaction to it. While this might sound like a good thing, as far as your health goes, it's definitely not.

The results of the study were clear: The more signs the kids showed of a positive bond with their parents when they were young, the better their cortisol functioned in adulthood.

[rebelmouse-image 19533112 dam="1" original_size="1376x721" caption="The more signs of positive parenting, attachment, and bonding that were present in childhood, the better the cortisol functioning turns out to be in adulthood. Image from "Visual Abstract 12.19" by Ben Shirtcliff/YouTube." expand=1]The more signs of positive parenting, attachment, and bonding that were present in childhood, the better the cortisol functioning turns out to be in adulthood. Image from "Visual Abstract 12.19" by Ben Shirtcliff/YouTube.

That's a good thing, the researchers suggest, because it helps keep kids alert and sensitive to all of the stimuli and information swirling around them from day to day, rather than having a blunted response to stressors and life in general.

So having great parents who use positive parenting methods is a good thing. Yay!

But the study had an important twist when it came to looking at racial demographics.

When race differences were accounted for — about half the kids were black and half were white — the cortisol correlation didn't hold up.

On average, the study found, white and black parents were equally likely to have a positive bond with their kids. But parenting styles aren't the only thing that can affect stress levels and kids' response to it.

Many of the white students in the study may have benefited from "low stress, resource-rich contexts which unfortunately may be less common for black youth," the researchers explained.

It's also worth noting that many groups — including black people of people Jewish descent — carry biological markers of trauma from previous generations (i.e., slavery, the Holocaust), which can also affect cortisol response.

[rebelmouse-image 19533113 dam="1" original_size="690x372" caption="Image via visual abstract by Ben Shirtcliff/YouTube" expand=1]Image via visual abstract by Ben Shirtcliff/YouTube

In other words, growing up with various socioeconomic and other hardships does indeed have a lifelong impact, and now we've got the beakers full of saliva (so to speak) to prove it.

This is important work. It proves that, in many cases, being a great parent can actually physically manifest itself in kids growing up to be well-adjusted and adaptable.

Being a loving parent can actually have a biological impact on your kids years and years later. That's amazing!

Perhaps most importantly, however, it shows a glaring need for kids — particularly those belonging to marginalized or disadvantaged groups — to get better support in the form of solid education, safe communities to grow up in, and more opportunities to learn and grow.

Having great parents isn't always enough to overcome a world that seems to be stacked against you, but it certainly helps.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

TikTok about '80s childhood is a total Gen X flashback.

As a Gen X parent, it's weird to try to describe my childhood to my kids. We're the generation that didn't grow up with the internet or cell phones, yet are raising kids who have never known a world without them. That difference alone is enough to make our 1980s childhoods feel like a completely different planet, but there are other differences too that often get overlooked.

How do you explain the transition from the brown and orange aesthetic of the '70s to the dusty rose and forest green carpeting of the '80s if you didn't experience it? When I tell my kids there were smoking sections in restaurants and airplanes and ashtrays everywhere, they look horrified (and rightfully so—what were we thinking?!). The fact that we went places with our friends with no quick way to get ahold of our parents? Unbelievable.

One day I described the process of listening to the radio, waiting for my favorite song to come on so I could record it on my tape recorder, and how mad I would get when the deejay talked through the intro of the song until the lyrics started. My Spotify-spoiled kids didn't even understand half of the words I said.

And '80s hair? With the feathered bangs and the terrible perms and the crunchy hair spray? What, why and how?

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