LUBBOCK, Texas (KXAN) — A baby cries. A mother responds.

A baby coos. A father responds.

A baby smiles. A mother responds.

For many new parents brimming with love, the back-and-forth with their baby just seems like the normal thing to do and may appear to have just a fleeting impact on the child. But, in reality, these parental responses are already shaping the child’s mental health.

Dr. Ann Mastergeorge
Dr. Ann Mastergeorge in her office at Texas Tech University
(KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Dr. Ann Mastergeorge, department chair of human development and family studies at Texas Tech University in Lubbock said the brain is constantly developing and building over time, and healthy relationships are critically important in those early years.

“If there is a mother who is absent, neglectful or depressed, the baby doesn’t get what we call serve-and-return,” Mastergeorge said.

In a room full of educators at SXSW EDU in March, she compared the connection to a tennis match and said the “serve-and-return” interactions between parent and child help build the architecture of the brain.

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Serve and return model
Serve-and-return model illustrating the back-and-forth that contributes to a child’s brain development

The majority of brain development happens in the first few years of life and so when negative experiences occur, they can have lasting impacts on the structure and function of the brain, Mastergeorge said.

She gave an example of a 9-month-old baby who had a neglectful mother struggling with substance abuse. The baby was placed with the maternal grandmother and eventually ended up in foster care, placed with eight different families. Mastergeorge said due to those experiences, the baby was suffering from toxic stress which included signs of distress and attachment disorder.

The most common adverse life experiences include:

  • harsh parenting
  • disorganized attachment early on
  • poverty
  • neglect
  • maltreatment (physical, verbal and sexual abuse)
  • maternal depression
  • witness to domestic violence

“Unfortunately, these adverse life experiences can be sort of like an avalanche,” Mastergeorge said. “They just don’t get better without intervention.”

Positive change can happen

On the other hand, children can have buffers to the adverse life experiences in the form of a teacher who is a very positive influence, a grandparent or even a neighbor. While mental health is very complex, Mastergeorge said the ways in which you can connect with children can be very simple.

In preschool, for example, teachers often greet every student who walks into the classroom. They have a choice of whether to do a high-five or a hug or a fist bump.

“What happens is often times we coddle and hug and interact with very young children and then in our culture we seem to stop at a particular point in time – like [with] school-age children, they don’t need that, we don’t need to talk to them, they’re fine,” Mastergeorge said. “But, in fact, they need that.”

When it comes to which mental health programs are working well in the educational setting, she believes school-wide initiatives working the best involve the family and home environment. Even after years of negative experiences taking a toll on a child’s brain, Mastergeorge said rigorous programs do produce positive outcomes.