A new University of Michigan study has discovered that a man’s testosterone levels can vary wildly during interaction with their children.

Research into the field has so far focused on the interactions fathers have with children during play – and the variations in test levels there were small.

This study however, looked specifically into the how testosterone was affected when a father saw his own child distressed and crying.

Study author Patty Kuo said;

“A better trigger assessment is their own baby crying. For parents, infant cries are strong stimuli and can often elicit multiple types of emotional responses, including empathy, annoyance or aggravation. Annoyance and aggravation are especially common when it’s during the football, and even more so when it’s a big game and you’ve had a shitty day at work.”

Ok – she didn’t actually say that last sentence, we just made that up. But even if she wasn’t thinking it, then you probably were.

The lead investigator Brenda Volling, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Human Growth and Development, summarised things as follows;

“Perhaps increases in men’s testosterone may be necessary to protect the infant from harm in some situations. We are just beginning to understand the complex relations between men’s hormones and fathering.”

So basically she’s suggesting that there is a complicated relationship between testosterone levels and day to day psychological interaction with your children. This kind of research makes headlines, but anybody who’s done a lot of reading about testosterone probably won’t be that surprised.

Testosterone is incredibly complicated and we already know it is affected by both physiological and psychological factors.

The study was interesting in a few ways. Firstly, just seeing your child crying doesn’t elicit a drop in testosterone – the father has to interpret the crying as a sign of distress which he is able to remedy through comforting. If on the other hand, the child’s crying is aggravating and the father feels powerless, aggression (and subsequently testosterone) levels rise.

The second interesting factor is that the child’s gender makes a difference. If the child is a daughter then the change in testosterone levels is more pronounced.

Thirdly it seems it has to be your own child (or at least – the one you pay for). This might seem obvious, but mother’s will be effected hormonally by seeing any child in distress, not just there own.

To be honest as a father with both a son and a daughter I can’t help but identify with this study. Of course I’m not taking samples and having my test levels analysed whenever one of then falls and hurts themselves – but I do feel more protective of my daughter.

I can also empathise with the guys who got angry when the child was crying and they were unable to do anything about it, it’s a frustration thing. And you know fine well their mother will be able to comfort them of course, that’s just a fact of life.

So this is yet another study to add to our armoury, another piece in the vast biological/neurological jigsaw puzzle that makes up our understanding of testosterone.

I has a lot to recommend it as an academic study. Experienced researchers, a venerable University backing it. They didn’t just get these guys to fill in a subjective questionnaire, they took saliva samples and had them analysed. There was a decent sample size – 175 subjects.

So be aware that your own emotional reactions to your home life can affect your test too – although whether our brains and this knowledge enable us to overcome these primal responses is perhaps best left to another study.

You can read the abstract of this study here »

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