7-12 Year Old Girls: Calls From Mom Relieve Stress

It may surprise many, but for girls 7-12 years old, a call from Mom can relieve –YES, RELIEVE–Stress!

Biological anthropologist Leslie Seltzer of University of Wisconsin-Madison, tested a group of 7- to 12-year-old girls. She had them give an impromptu speech and solve a series of math problems in front of a panel of strangers. These tasks increased two measures of stress; increases in their heart rates and level of cortisol were detected.
Once stressed:

  • One-third of the girls were comforted in person by their mothers – specifically with hugs, an arm around the shoulders and the like.
  • One-third were left to watch an emotion-neutral 75-minute video.
  • The final third spoke to their mothers on the phone.

Whether in person or by phone, the children who interacted with their mothers had the same hormonal responses:

  • Oxytocin increased
  • Cortisol decreased

Oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” is strongly associated with emotional attachment. This hormone rose significantly in the girls who had physical or over-the-phone contact with their mothers.

The stress-marking hormone, cortisol declined. It can be difficult to find ways to reduce cortisol, and to increase oxytocin. So the fact that a phone call can do this is quite remarkable.

Prior to this study, it was believed that the release of oxytocin in response to social attachment required physical contact. This study demonstrates that just hearing a mother’s voice can have the same effect.  The anxiety-relieving qualities of oxytocin persists for several hours afterward, with low levels of cortisol even by the time the children go home.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B , and support hypotheses about how males and females respond differently to stress.

  • Confronted with a threat, males may be more likely to choose between fight and flight.
  • A female with offspring in tow or slowed by pregnancy, however, may not be able to run, or defend oneself without endangering themselves and their child. Instead, females may use touch, or a soothing voice to deal with stressors.  In response to either, oxytocin is released, and stress is reduced in females. This may strengthen the bond between individuals while doing so.

Clinically, this may explain why girls this age frequently call their mothers when their mothers are gone. But can it also explain their propensity to text? Seltzer is now looking at the impact of text messaging on the levels of oxytocin! She also hopes to see other scientists conduct similar studies in other animals.