Researchers first asked 61 girls (between ages 7 and 12) to do something stressful, like give a speech or tackle math problems. Then one-third of the girls were reunited with their mothers for 15 minutes of hugs and soothing talk. Another third got no hugs, but spent 15 minutes hearing soothing talk from their mothers on the phone. Both of those groups then watched a chatty, nonstressful movie for an hour. The last third had no contact with their mothers, and watched the same movie for 75 minutes.
The levels of cortisol (a stress-producing hormone) and oxytocin (a stress-reducing hormone) were measured both before and after the stress test. Those who had contact with their moms showed a decrease in cortisol levels and a decrease in oxytocin levels, while those who had no contact showed had cortisol levels that continued to rise even while watching the movie, and they showed no increase in oxytocin.
I imagine many of you want to jump in here and point out that dads can soothe their daughters, too, or that sons respond to their mothers, thank-you-very-much. I know that. But this study happened to be done with mothers and young daughters. Yes, I’d like to see one that includes some men, but the one I would like to see even more is a measure of the stress levels of these parents who are doing the long-distance soothing. I would bet that their cortisol levels jump when a stressed-out kid is on the line. And I would also bet those levels remain elevated long after the child’s have gone down.