Developing close and loving bonds between family members is important to a child’s well-being and development. It seems obvious that a loving relationship between parent and child creates a healthy and happy environment, but the latest research is telling us just how important this can be for a child’s future. Being loved and shown affection early on may help to prevent a child from developing an eating disorder, or even a drug addiction.
Oxytocin: The Love Hormone
Oxytocin is a hormone that acts in the human brain in response to love and social bonding. When you touch someone affectionately—a hug, for instance—your body releases oxytocin and you get that warm and fuzzy feeling. Researchers have deduced that the hormone is important in developing relationships, in bonding between two people, and in developing trust. In other words, oxytocin is essential for humans to develop socially. It is particularly important in creating a loving bond between a mother and her child. When that oxytocin system is impaired early in life, it could create problems later on.
Oxytocin and Addiction
Researchers have found a telling connection between people who struggle with addiction and limited development of oxytocin at a young age. Babies are born with oxytocin already circulating, which helps to establish the bond with the mother. However, if the system is not reinforced and developed by love and affection from a caregiver, the effects could be lifelong. The oxytocin system does not finish developing in a child until about age 3. Up to that point, a child needs plenty of love, affection and safety from trauma and adversity to ensure that the system will develop normally.
Researchers have found that adults who have addictive issues also had underdeveloped oxytocin systems. They conclude that oxytocin protects us from addiction by lowering the pleasurable effect that drugs have in the brain. In someone who did not develop enough oxytocin at a young age, drugs impart a more intense sense of euphoria, and addiction becomes more likely.
Oxytocin and Eating Disorders
There are many similarities between addiction and eating disorders so it should come as no surprise that oxytocin may also impact the development of disordered eating. Researchers looking for more effective treatments for eating disorders gave anorexic patients doses of oxytocin. The result was that the participants were able to stop focusing and fixating on high-calorie foods and images of fat body parts. Oxytocin has also been shown to reduce anxiety, which may further help those struggling with eating disorders.
The conclusions drawn from studies that show oxytocin helps anorexics stop focusing on food and weight may suggest again the importance of the love hormone during childhood. As with addicts who had underdeveloped oxytocin symptoms, people struggling with eating disorders may also have suffered trauma, neglect, or lack of affection that reduced their oxytocin levels below normal. More research needs to be conducted, but using oxytocin may be a new way to treat not just anorexia, but a range of eating disorders and other mental illnesses.
As more research begins to uncover the importance of oxytocin in early childhood, the information gives guidance to parents. Affection, love, safety and stability are crucially important to healthy development. The more parents can help to develop the oxytocin system in their children, the less likely they will be to develop later substance abuse disorders, eating disorders and potentially other mental health issues.