1. Positive father-child relationship can moderate negative effects of maternal depression

    May 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Bar-Ilan University press release:

    Maternal depression negatively impacts children’s emotional and cognitive development and family life. Studies have shown that a home in which the mother suffers from depression exhibits lower cohesion, warmth, and expressiveness and higher conflict, rigidity, and affectionless control. Since 15-18% of women in industrial societies and up to 30% in developing countries suffer from maternal depression, it is of clinical and public health concern to understand the effects of maternal depression on children’s development.

    A family affair

    A new study, published in Development and Psychopathology, by Prof. Ruth Feldman and colleagues at the Department of Psychology and Leslie and Susan Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University has, for the first time, examined whether fathering can moderate the negative effects of maternal depression on family-level functioning. The results of this study are the first to describe the family process by using direct observations of mothering, fathering, and family patterns in homes where mothers suffer clinical depression during the child’s first years of life.

    Feldman conducted a longitudinal study of a carefully selected sample of married or cohabiting chronically depressed women with no comorbid contextual risk, who were repeatedly assessed for maternal depression across the first year after childbirth and when the child reached age six. The families were home-visited when the child reached preschool age in order to observe and videotape mother-child, father-child, and both-parent-child interactions.

    Sense and sensitivity

    During the first years of life, sensitivity marks the most critical component of the parental style that affects the child’s emotional and social development. Sensitive parents are attuned to their child’s needs and attend to them in a responsive and nonintrusive manner. Parents who act intrusively tend to take over tasks that children are, or could be, performing independently, imposing their own agenda without regard for the child.

    In Feldman’s study depressed mothers exhibited low sensitivity and high intrusiveness, and children displayed lower social engagement during interactions with them. Partners of depressed mothers also showed low sensitivity, high intrusiveness, and provided little opportunities for child social engagement, so that the family unit was less cohesive, harmonious, warm, and collaborative. However, when fathers were sensitive, nonintrusive, and engaged children socially, maternal depression no longer predicted low family cohesion.

    Feldman: “When fathers rise to the challenge of co-parenting with a chronically depressed mother, become invested in the father-child relationship despite little modeling from their wives, and form a sensitive, nonintrusive, and reciprocal relationship with the child that fosters his/her social involvement and participation, fathering can buffer the spillover from maternal depression to the family atmosphere.”

    According to Feldman, because rates of maternal depression appear to increase each decade, and paternal involvement in child care is constantly increasing in industrial societies, it is critical to address the fathers’ potential contribution to family welfare by providing interventions for the development of a sensitive parenting style and other compensatory mechanisms, in order to enhance their role as buffers of the negative effects of maternal depression.

    This study was supported by the Israel Science Foundation, the Simms-Mann Foundation, and the Irving B. Harris Foundation.


  2. Dad’s involvement with baby early on associated with boost in mental development

    May 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Imperial College London press release:

    Fathers who interact more with their children in their first few months of life could have a positive impact on their baby’s cognitive development.

    In a study, published in the Infant Mental Health Journal, researchers from Imperial College London, King’s College London and Oxford University looked at how fathers interacted with their babies at three months of age and measured the infants’ cognitive development more than a year later.

    They found that babies whose fathers were more engaged and active when playing with them in their initial months performed better in cognitive tests at two years of age. The researchers say that while a number of factors are critical in a child’s development, the relatively unexplored link between quality father-infant interactions at a young age may be an important one.

    Professor Paul Ramchandani, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial and who led the research, said: “Even as early as three months, these father-child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later, so there’s something probably quite meaningful for later development, and that really hasn’t been shown much before.”

    In the study, researchers recorded video of parents interacting with their children, with mothers and fathers playing with their babies without toys, at three months, and then during a book-reading session at two years of age. The videos were then observed independently by trained researchers, with different researchers at three months and 24 months grading the fathers on their interactions.

    At two years of age, they scored the baby’s cognitive development using the standardised Bayley mental development index (MDI) — which involved tasks such as recognising colours and shapes.

    After analysing data for 128 fathers, and accounting for factors such as their income and age, they found a positive correlation between the degree to which dads engaged with their babies and how the children scored on the tests. Dads with more positive outlooks were also more likely to have babies who performed better on the MDI scales.

    What’s more, the positive link between involved dads and higher infant MDI scores were seen equally whether the child was a boy or a girl, countering the idea that play time with dad is more important for boys than girls, at an early age.

    Dr Vaheshta Sethna from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: “We also found that children interacting with sensitive, calm and less anxious fathers during a book session at the age of two showed better cognitive development, including attention, problem-solving, language and social skills. This suggests that reading activities and educational references may support cognitive and learning development in these children.”

    Dr Sethna added: “Our findings highlight the importance of supporting fathers to interact more positively with their children in early infancy. Specifically, considering interventions which encourage increased father-infant engagement with shared positive emotions, and book sharing sessions supportive of cognitive development.”

    While the study provides a window into the effects of dad’s involvement with baby, there were a number of limitations. Parents recruited to the study were drawn from a relatively well educated population. In addition, the measure of interactions were taken from relatively short videos, so may not represent how they interact in other situations.

    The researchers are now working on a trial based on helping parents with their interactions with their children and then giving them positive feedback to help them deal with challenging behaviour.

    Professor Ramchandani concluded: “For those fathers who are more engaged it may be that there is a lot more positive stuff going on in their lives generally. That might be the reason for the link, but we can’t be sure of that. All we can say is that there is a signal here, and it seems to be an important one.

    “The clear message for new fathers here is to get stuck in and play with your baby. Even when they’re really young playing and interacting with them can have a positive effect.”


  3. How focusing on parent-child relationships can prevent child maltreatment

    May 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Notre Dame press release:

    Child abuse and neglect is a widespread and costly problem in the United States. Approximately 3.9 million children were subjects of maltreatment reports to child welfare agencies in 2013. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child abuse and neglect cost the U.S. $124 billion in 2012.

    In order to help children facing maltreatment, researchers and clinicians first needed to address the heart of the problem. The relationship between the parent and child is key, argues Kristin Valentino, William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, in an article published recently in a special section of the journal Child Development.

    More than 90 percent of maltreated children are victimized by one or both parents, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “My position is that child maltreatment, in most cases, can best be understood as a problem in the parent-child relationship,” Valentino says. “Thus, we should focus on enhancing the parent-child relationship in our intervention efforts.”

    Two broad kinds of relational interventions between parents and children are available to researchers and clinicians. In her article, Valentino examines brief models and long-term models, both designed to improve not only how well parents understand their children and how to react to them, but also the child’s attachment security. The latter plays a critical role in supporting positive development, including coping skills, emotional and behavioral functioning, peer relationships and even physical health.

    Children who are neglected, abused or otherwise mistreated often develop emotional problems, Valentino says: “Up to 80 to 90 percent of maltreated children develop what is known as disorganized attachment. This classification is one type of insecure attachment and is associated with the worst outcomes including severe problems in emotion regulation, school achievement and the development of psychopathology.”

    Valentino reviews the pros and cons of brief and long-term intervention methods, and conclusively recommends a tiered approach wherein families are provided with brief interventions first, and subsequent long-term approaches if needed.

    “Given limitations on resources and funds to support treatment in the child welfare system, this approach would allow us to provide services to more families, and to identify families who should be referred to more intensive programs in a targeted manner,” Valentino says.

    Valentino is a clinical and developmental psychologist who conducts research with families through Notre Dame’s Shaw Center for Children and Families. Her current research focuses on evaluating the effectiveness of a brief relational intervention for maltreated preschool-aged children and their mothers in a randomized clinical trial design.


  4. Study suggests pet dogs help kids feel less stressed

    May 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Florida press release:

    Pet dogs provide valuable social support for kids when they’re stressed, according to a study by researchers from the University of Florida, who were among the first to document stress-buffering effects of pets for children.

    Darlene Kertes and colleagues tested the commonly held belief that pet dogs provide social support for kids using a randomized controlled study — the gold standard in research.

    “Many people think pet dogs are great for kids but scientists aren’t sure if that’s true or how it happens,” Kertes said. Kertes reasoned that one way this might occur is by helping children cope with stress. “How we learn to deal with stress as children has lifelong consequences for how we cope with stress as adults.”

    For their study, recently published in the journal Social Development, the researchers recruited approximately 100 pet-owning families, who came to their university laboratory with their dogs. To tap children’s stress, the children completed a public speaking task and mental arithmetic task, which are known to evoke feelings of stress and raise the stress hormone cortisol, and simulates real-life stress in children’s lives. The children were randomly assigned to experience the stressor with their dog present for social support, with their parent present, or with no social support.

    “Our research shows that having a pet dog present when a child is undergoing a stressful experience lowers how much children feel stressed out,” Kertes said . “Children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed compared to having a parent for social support or having no social support.”

    Samples of saliva was also collected before and after the stressor to check children’s cortisol levels, a biological marker of the body’s stress response. Results showed that for kids who underwent the stressful experience with their pet dogs, children’s cortisol level varied depending on the nature of the interaction of children and their pets.

    “Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less,” said Kertes, an assistant professor in the psychology department of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”

    The children in the study were between 7 to 12 years old.

    “Middle childhood is a time when children’s social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing,” Kertes explained. “Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and well-being, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life.”


  5. Three-year-olds understand, value obligations of joint commitment

    by Ashley

    From the Society for Research in Child Development press release:

    The ability to engage in joint actions is a critical step toward becoming a cooperative human being. In particular, forming a commitment with a partner to achieve a goal that one cannot achieve alone is important for functioning in society. Previous research has shown that children begin collaborating with others between ages 2 and 3 years. However, it’s less clear whether they understand the concept of joint commitments with binding obligations. A new study looked at this phenomenon and suggests that children as young as 3 understand and value the obligations that accompany a joint commitment – and that they resent a partner who breaks a commitment for selfish reasons.

    The study, by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (in Germany) and Duke University, appears in the journal Child Development.

    “Collaborating with joint goals that structure individuals’ roles in pursuit of shared rewards is a uniquely human form of social interaction,” explains Margarita Svetlova, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Duke University, who contributed to the study. “In this study, we wanted to see what children understand about the specific roles each of them must play to achieve joint success in an interdependent task, and how they react to partners who fail to do their part for various reasons.”

    Researchers presented 72 pairs of 3-year-olds (for a total of 144 children) with a collaborative task – pulling on a rope together to move a block toward a set of marbles to get a reward; the children were tested in same-sex pairs and agreed verbally to play the game together. The children were predominantly middle-class and White, and they lived in a medium-sized German city.

    During the task, one of the partners – who had been trained before engaging in the task – stopped cooperating with the other, either leaving the collaborative task to receive an individual reward (the selfish condition), stopping because he or she operated the toy inefficiently (the ignorant condition), or quitting because the toy broke (the accidental condition). Researchers then observed children’s reactions to their partner’s defection and what they did next: Some tattled, others became emotionally aroused, and still others taught their partner how to engage in the task.

    The study found that 3-year-olds could coordinate their actions with others in joint tasks, and that they understood these tasks were collaborative commitments and protested when a partner defected selfishly and knowingly. Children were naturally frustrated when the task was interrupted for any reason, but they reacted more strongly and with more resentment–tattling on their partner and becoming more aroused–when they thought their partner had broken the joint commitment (the selfish condition). “This illustrates children’s growing understanding of norms of cooperative co-existence and the obligations they entail,” explains Svetlova.

    When a partner’s defection happened because of a reason outside his or her control (the accidental condition) or because the partner didn’t know how to do the task (the ignorant condition), the children were less upset, the researchers found. In the latter condition, children were more likely to teach their partner how to do the task and less likely to protest the interruption.

    “The outcome of an unsuccessful collaboration was the same in all three conditions, but the children’s reactions were drastically different,” adds Svetlova. “That tells us that the children in our study correctly inferred and addressed the underlying intentions of their partners.”

    “Our findings have important implications for parents and preschool teachers,” suggests Ulrike Kachel, Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who led the study. “Young children have a stronger foundation in terms of their understanding of joint commitments than has previously been understood. Those working with children in the home and in classrooms can build on this foundation by incorporating joint activities, such as cooperative independent tasks, into children’s interactions.”


  6. Study suggests first year of grade school sharpens kids’ attention skills

    May 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the UC Berkeley press release:

    The first year of elementary school markedly boosts a child’s attentiveness, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

    The study, led by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, shows that children who transition earlier to a formal school environment learn to be more focused and less impulsive than their peers at play-based preschools. The findings are published today in the online issue of the journal Psychological Science.

    “These results demonstrate for the first time how environmental context shapes the development of brain mechanisms in 5-year-olds transitioning into school,” said study co-author Silvia Bunge, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience.

    Researchers hypothesized that a controlled educational setting in which young children must learn to sit still, follow directions and avoid distractions would boost certain cognitive skills, such as staying on task. The experiment, conducted in Germany where preschool is referred to as “kindergarten,” proved their theory.

    “Our results indicate that the structured learning environment of school has a positive effect on the development of behavioral control,” said study lead author Garvin Brod, a researcher at the German Institute for International Educational Research.

    For the study, researchers used computerized tests and brain imaging to track the cognitive performance of 62 children aged 5. In comparing the results of tests conducted at the beginning and end of a school and preschool year, the study found that the children who had gone to school showed greater improvement than their preschool peers at maintaining focus and following rules.

    Moreover, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains during an attention control task showed the schoolgoers to have a more active right parietal cortex, which supports attentiveness, among other cognitive skills.

    While the findings reveal new information in the ongoing debate over the developmentally appropriate age to start school, the researchers are not necessarily advocating for early school start ages.

    “Those results should not be taken to mean that the elementary school setting is necessarily better for young children’s development than play-based early schooling,” Bunge said, citing research that shows children do well in hands-on, interactive learning environments.

    Moreover, there is enormous developmental variation across children of the same age, she said.


  7. Study suggests that praise can help improve behaviour in children

    May 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the British Psychological Society press release:

    That is the key finding of research that is being presented today, Friday 5 May 2017, by Sue Westwood from De Montfort University at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Brighton.

    Sue Westwood said: “Praising a child is a simple act. Improved behaviour and wellbeing can result simply from ensuring that a child’s positive actions are rewarded with praise and parents are seen to be observing their good behaviour.”

    Some 38 parents with children, aged between two and four years, were recruited from children’s centres and universities to take part in the study over a four-week period, filling out a questionnaire to monitor behaviour and wellbeing and being given information on how to praise their child effectively.

    Those parents who succeeded in offering their child five pieces of praise each day, alongside catching their child’s good behaviour, saw an improvement in the child’s wellbeing when compared to a control group.

    This in turn led to improved behaviour and reduced levels of hyperactivity and inattention.

    Sue Westwood added: “Following the five praises initiative led to improved behaviour as well as reduced levels of hyperactivity across just a four week period.

    “This simple, cost effective intervention shows the importance of effective parental praise and, when used on a regular basis, it has been shown to have a significant impact.”


  8. Bullying’s lasting impact

    May 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Delaware press release:

    A new study led by the University of Delaware found that kids who are bullied in fifth grade often suffer from depression and begin using alcohol and other substances a few years after the incidents.

    “Students who experienced more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade were more likely to have greater symptoms of depression in seventh grade, and a greater likelihood of using alcohol, marijuana or tobacco in tenth grade,” said the study’s leader, Valerie Earnshaw, a social psychologist and assistant professor in UD’s College of Education and Human Development.

    The study involved researchers from universities and hospitals in six states, who analyzed data collected between 2004 and 2011 from 4,297 students on their journey from fifth through tenth grade. The findings were published online in the medical journal Pediatrics.

    The students were from Birmingham, Alabama; Houston, Texas; and Los Angeles County, California. Forty-four percent were Latino, 29 percent were African American and 22 percent were white.

    Although peer victimization is common during late childhood and early adolescence and appears to be associated with increased substance use, few studies have examined these associations longitudinally — meaning that data is gathered from the same subjects repeatedly over several years — or point to the psychological processes whereby peer victimization leads to substance use.

    “We show that peer victimization in fifth grade has lasting effects on substance use five years later. We also show that depressive symptoms help to explain why peer victimization is associated with substance use, suggesting that youth may be self-medicating by using substances to relieve these negative emotions,” Earnshaw said.

    Impacts and interventions

    Peer victimization leads to substance use, and substance use can harm adolescent development with implications for health throughout the lifespan, Earnshaw said. Alcohol and marijuana use may interfere with brain development and can lead to injuries. Tobacco use may lead to respiratory illness, cancer and early death.

    “Youth who develop substance use disorders are at risk of many mental and physical illnesses throughout life,” Earnshaw said. “So, the substance use that results from peer victimization can affect young people throughout their lives.”

    Among the study’s findings, boys, sexual minority youth and youth living with chronic illness reported more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade. Age, obesity, race/ethnicity, household educational achievement and family income were not related to more frequent peer victimization.

    Twenty-four percent of tenth graders in the study reported recent alcohol use, 15.2 percent reported marijuana use, and 11.7 percent reported tobacco use. Sexual minority status was more strongly related to alcohol use among girls than boys; it was also related to marijuana and tobacco use among girls but not boys.

    Earnshaw used structural equation modeling — a form of statistical analysis — to examine the multiple variables across time and to test if there were relationships among them. She started working with the data in summer 2015 and finalized the model in fall 2016 in her office in UD’s Alison Hall.

    An expert in stigma research, Earnshaw wants to understand why people treat other people poorly and how this poor treatment leads to poor health, including through substance use behaviors. She hopes this latest study will enlighten pediatricians, teachers, parents — anyone in a position to help students facing peer aggression.

    “We urge pediatricians to screen youth for peer victimization, symptoms of depression and substance use,” says Earnshaw. “These doctors can offer counsel to youth and recommendations to parents and youth for approaching teachers and school staff for support. Moreover, youth experiencing depressive symptoms and substance use should be offered treatment when needed.”

    The research team’s messages also extend to teachers.

    Peer victimization really matters, and we need to take it seriously — this echoes the messages educators already have been receiving,” Earnshaw says. “This study gives some additional evidence as to why it’s important to intervene. It also may give teachers insight into why students are depressed or using substances in middle and high school.”


  9. How do toddlers learn best from touchscreens?

    by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Educational apps for kids can be valuable learning tools, but there’s still a lot left to understand about how to best design them, shows a report in Frontiers in Psychology.

    “Our experiments are a reminder that just because touchscreens allow for physical interaction, it doesn’t mean that it’s always beneficial,” says Dr. Colleen Russo-Johnson, lead author of the study and who completed this work as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.

    Smartphones and tablets have become so pervasive that, even in lower-income households, 90% of American children have used a touchscreen by the age of 2. Eighty percent of educational apps in the iTunes store are designed for children — especially toddlers and preschoolers. But recent research has shown that sometimes all those chimes and animations hinder learning, prompting the question, how well do we understand what it takes to make a truly beneficial learning app?

    “Children interact with touch screens and the embedded media content in vastly different ways and this impacts their ability to learn from the content,” says Russo-Johnson. “Our experiment focused on how children interacted with touchscreen devices — on a more basic level — by stripping away fancy design features that vary from app to app and that are not always beneficial.”

    Using a custom-made, streamlined learning app, Russo-Johnson and her colleagues showed that children as young as 2 could use the app to learn new words such as the fictional names of a variety of newly-introduced toys (designed specifically for the study). Unsurprisingly, slightly older children (age 4 to 5) were able to learn more than the younger ones (age 2 to 3) and they were also able to follow directions better — such as only tapping when instructed to do so.

    The researchers went on to show that the excessive tapping by younger children seemed to go hand-in-hand with lower scores of a trait called self-regulation. As in this study, self-regulation is commonly measured by seeing how long children can keep themselves from eating a cracker that is placed in front of them — after they’ve been told to wait until they hear a signal that it’s ok to eat the cracker.

    To complement this first study (which included 77 children), Russo-Johnson and her colleagues designed a second app to see which interactions — tapping, dragging, or simply watching — were better for learning new words.

    Somewhat surprisingly, across this next group of 170 2- to 4-year olds, no single type of interaction proved to consistently be the best. But there were differences depending on age, gender, and the extent of prior exposure to touchscreens at home. Boys appeared to benefit more from watching, whereas dragging seemed best for girls and children with the most touchscreen experience.

    These results complement the growing body of research on identifying effective interactive features, as well as providing insight into how apps might be tailored to fit the learning needs of different children.

    “I hope that this research will inform academics and app developers alike,” says Russo-Johnson. “Educational app developers should be mindful of utilizing interactivity in meaningful ways that don’t distract from the intended educational benefits, and, when possible, allow for customization so parents and educators can determine the best settings for their children.”


  10. Parents’ motivation influences students’ academic outcomes

    May 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Tübingen press release:

    Whether parental help has positive or negative effects on students’ academic outcomes depends on the motivation and involvement of their parents. Results of a study conducted by the Hector Research Institute of Education Sciences and Psychology suggest that students whose parents are interested in math and perceive their own math competencies to be high perform better than students with parents who show a low interest in math and regard their competencies in the domain as equally low — regardless of the intensity of the help students receive at home. The results have now been published in Child Development.

    Family background plays a crucial role in the development of students’ academic motivation and achievement. Previous research suggested that parents’ academic involvement is, on average, associated with better academic outcomes, but the pattern of results was far from being unequivocal and it also remained unclear what kind of help is actually helpful and what is harmful. For example, excessive parental involvement may be perceived by students as controlling behavior. This can have a detrimental effect on their academic confidence and correspondingly on achievement. Thus, researchers at the University of Tübingen set out to investigate which family characteristics have a positive effect on academic outcomes and which characteristics can be more of a hindrance. To this end, they collected data from more than 1,500 ninth-grade students and their parents.

    Parents answered questions on the degree of their academic involvement in math such as homework help, family math interest, their math competencies, their child’s need for support in math, and the time and energy they invest in their child’s academic life. Students filled out questionnaires at the beginning as well as five months later, in which they reported on their own competencies, their effort, and their interest in math. In addition, their math grades and their achievement in standardized achievement tests were assessed.

    The results confirmed the researchers’ assumption that parental involvement per se does not result in higher academic outcomes. Instead, there are very specific family characteristics that promote high achievement. “A favorable pattern of students’ academic outcomes was found when families were interested in math and perceived their own math competence to be high, regardless of their amount of academic involvement,” says Isabelle Häfner, lead author of the study. Thus, it would be problematic to attribute high or low achievement solely to whether parents help students with their homework or not.

    The most unfavorable conditions for academic achievement were found for students from deeply involved families who considered their child needed support in math, showed low levels of family math interest, and perceived their own math competencies as low. Students from these ‘involved but unmotivated’ families not only performed poorly in math, but also showed low levels of motivation. “Helicopter moms can impair their child’s performance if they are not themselves interested in the subject they want to support their child in,” explains Häfner. This complex interplay of favorable and unfavorable factors with regard to students’ academic achievement will be investigated in further studies.