Every parent wants the secret recipe to raise a healthy, well-adjusted child. It appears that the “secret” may be fairly simple and have everything to do with two chemicals found in the human body.
Matt Larson is co-founder of The Human Improvement Project, a non-profit dedicated to scientific research that focuses on child development. He says there are two chemicals found in the human body that can be linked to long-term happiness and wellness in children, and eventually adults: oxytocin and cortisol.
Science shows that kids who had high oxytocin and low cortisol levels grow into well adjusted, happy adults.
“If you look at prisons, they’re full of high cortisol, low oxytocin childhood people,” he explains to Parentology. While many factors play into why kids can go down a bad path, research shows that kids with a healthy balance of these chemicals are less likely to make poor decisions, succumb to addiction, or engage in risky behaviors.
The good news is that both oxytocin and cortisol can be easily affected and changed by simple behavioral modifications.
What Are Oxytocin and Cortisol?
Oxytocin is a chemical that has been linked to reducing stress, while promoting attachment and improved social skills. It’s usually released in the body when people express physical affection or bond socially.
Cortisol is a hormone released when your body is experiencing stress. And while some stress and cortisol is healthy and normal, excessive amounts have been linked to everything from anxiety and depression to heart disease.
There are simple things that parents can do to help positively impact the levels of oxytocin in their children. Larson says that “Oxytocin, which when it’s released inside safe long-term relationships, is what we call the long-term happiness chemical.”
Simple things like a pat on the back, a hug, or watching television while sitting close can immediately increase oxytocin. Focusing on positive social interactions like spending time with grandparents or friends are also good ways to help your children maintain healthy levels of oxytocin.
Cortisol, which is the long-term unhappiness chemical, is harder to address. Parents, unknowingly, are often the source of higher cortisol levels in their kids by creating additional stress for them. However, Larson notes that once parents are aware of it, behaviors usually start changing right away.
Improving Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels
In an effort to help parents be aware of how their behaviors may be affecting their child, The Human Improvement Project developed The Happy Child app. The app was designed to give parents tactical tools and examples that they can implement in everyday situations. It’s funded by the non-profit, is free to download, and free from advertisements.
Parents using the app have reported noticing changes in their mindset or the way they were interacting with their children.
“This app brings you back to the basics and reminds parents that the most important and influential thing we can do is create a deep bond,” says Jessica Joseff, who uses the app. She tells Parentology, “The app explains how to achieve this with manageable step-by-step directions and gives realistic examples.”
“It’s like mindfulness, it just helps you get a second to pause and decide how you really want to approach a situation rather than just reacting emotionally, which often makes things worse,” parent Dominic Vermeulen-Smith tells Parentology.
Cortisol and oxytocin are all about our human need for centeredness or belonging and acceptance. Larson says it can be traced back to our days living in tribes and has become a part of our human evolution. The need for oxytocin and lower cortisol does not vary — these are basic needs that have evolved with humans over time.
Humans have a need to be “centered” in their group. The group has evolved from a tribe to a smaller family unit, but the inherent need has remained the same. Shayla Bentley, a mother of four, tells Parentology that her parenting is not the only thing that has been impacted.
“I am more aware of the way I talk to [and] interact with my children and spouse” she says. “I am also aware of the deeper levels of my own emotions and how they play into my attitude and actions.”
Most every parent’s goal is to raise a well-adjusted child who leads a happy life. Now, The Human Improvement Project may have simplified years of science and evolution to help parents focus on the two things that matter most.