Patience in parenting: the role of working memory

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As most parents know, as adorable as they are, sometimes kids can also be very frustrating. So, when those trying parenting moments arise, what distinguishes the moms who lose their cool from those who stay in control? According to research published in the journal Psychological Science, it may come down to working memory. In a study of mothers of twins, researchers found that the parents’ with less developed working memory were more likely to lash out at their children in moments of frustration.

In this study, a team of researchers recruited mothers of twins, and observed them interacting individually with each child while they also completed a frustrating task—such as drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch or a moving a marble through a tilting maze. Separately, they also tested the mothers for a range of cognitive skills, including working memory. They found that, mothers with poorer working memory—broadly, the memory system that pulls up and temporarily stores the memories necessary to complete the task at hand—were far more likely to snap at their children when they grew frustrated, compared with those with more developed working memory. The difference, researchers suggest, may have to do with the fact that, mothers who had worse working memory struggled to rein in their emotions by quickly pulling up and reflecting on earlier experiences.

These findings are particularly promising, researchers say, because future efforts to improve parent education and interrupt a cycle of reactive and negative parenting—which can also be a precursor to child abuse—may benefit from incorporating techniques to improve working memory.