According to a recent study published in the journal Emotion, a literal helping hand from mom may help teenage girls deal with a stressful situation, but so too might a close emotional bond with them.

Recruiting the help of 66 mother-daughter pairs, the study authors asked the daughters (on average around the age of 15) to spontaneously recite a speech in public — a notoriously stressful task. Though all the pairs were told beforehand to describe the quality of their relationship, only a subset of girls were asked to hold their mother’s hand while performing the speech. As they spoke, the stress levels of both mother and daughter were measured through their galvanic skin response, or the amount of sweat released through their skin.

Sure enough, the hand-holding generally helped reduce the stress levels of the girls, regardless of how close the pair reported being to one another, but girls who held strong emotional ties to their mothers were also likely to feel less anxious about the task, even if their hands weren’t held.

"Our results suggest that we are better equipped to overcome challenging situations when we are closer — either physically or in terms of how we feel in our relationships — to people we trust," said lead author Jessica Lougheed, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, in a statement.

Lougheed and her colleagues believe their findings support the existence of “load sharing”, which, according to Social Baseline Theory, is a “feature of close relationships whereby the burden of emotional distress is distributed across relationship partners.”

As further proof, they found that girls with the most distant relationships and whose hands went unheld fared the worst at managing their stress during the task. For girls with a strong mother-daughter relationship but who gave a speech with hands unheld, however, their bond offered a similar level of protection against stress as hand-handing. “Thus, high relationship quality buffers against threat in a similar way to the physical comfort of a loved one,” the authors concluded.

Interestingly enough, the load sharing effect wasn’t seen among mothers.

"We were somewhat surprised to find that mothers' stress did not vary by physical closeness — after all, it can be stressful for parents to watch their children perform, but being able to offer physical comfort might have lessened the mothers' stress," said Lougheed. "Thus, emotional load sharing in this context was not a function of the mothers' stress level, and we expect that it occurred instead through the daughters' perceptions of how stressful it was to give a speech. That is, higher physical and/or relationship closeness helped the daughters feel like they could overcome the challenging situation."

As with all studies, there are a few caveats, namely that it’s hard to generalize its findings to other types of relationships, such as that between lovers or close friends. Additionally, Lougheed and her team found that the average level of relationship quality was, all things considered, fairly high in their sample; it’s possible then that the effect of physical closeness on stress may work differently among dysfunctional families

For these reasons, they hope that further research is conducted on untangling these varying factors.

Source: Lougheed J, Koval P, Hollenstein T. Sharing the Burden: The Interpersonal Regulation of Emotional Arousal in Mother−Daughter Dyads. Emotion. 2015.