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New Research Looks at Key Aspects of Childhood Development

Sep 09, 2011

Recent studies from across CIC universities are providing powerful insight into important issues facing families and communities.

  • At Pennsylvania State University, researchers found that children who go through puberty at a faster rate are more likely to act out and to suffer from anxiety and depression.  In research appearing in the September issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, the team reports that "earlier timing for girls was related to a slew of behavior problems, and we also found that a faster tempo of development independently predicted those same sorts of problem behaviors," said Kristine Marceau, a Penn State graduate student and the study's primary author. "Although timing and tempo both predicted behavior problems in girls, timing and tempo weren't related to each other. For boys, though, we found a strong relationship between timing and tempo. For example, we found that boys who have later timing combined with slower tempo exhibited the least amount of acting out and externalizing problems."  For more on this study, visit the related article.
  • At the University of Illinois, professor of psychology,  Karen Rudolph looked at the question, How do children respond to bullying and why? The answer, researchers say, may lead to more effective interventions to reduce the negative consequences – and perhaps even the frequency – of bullying. Rudolph found that consciously or not, children tend to adopt one of three approaches:  “Some are focused on developing their relationships. They want to improve their social skills. They want to learn how to make friends,” she said. Others are most interested in “demonstrating their competence,” she said. They may try to demonstrate their competence by enhancing their status or seeking approval from their peers. “These are kids who say: ‘I want to be cool. I want lots of kids to like me. I want to hang out with the popular kids.’ ”  Or they may try to demonstrate their competence by avoiding negative judgments.  “These are the kids who say, ‘I’m not going to do anything that’s going to draw negative attention, that’s going to make me look like a loser, that’s going to embarrass me,’” Rudolph said.  Understanding children’s social goals may lead to better interventions to change the dynamic between a bully and his or her targets, Rudolph said. For more on this study, visit the related article.

In research coming out of the Universities of Chicago and Wisconsin, the link between stressed-out parents and the effects on their children has been explored at both the emotional and physical level.

  • “There is growing evidence that parental job loss has adverse consequences on children’s behavior, academic achievement and later employment outcomes, particularly in economically disadvantaged families,” said Heather Hill, assistant professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. The material hardship and stress associated with unemployment appears to reduce the quality of the home environment and adversely affect children, Hill and other UChicago researchers have found.  She found that, among young children, a maternal job loss is associated with increasing children’s problem behavior in the classroom by more than 40 percent.  Parental unemployment can lead to problems for children regardless of the family’s income status, however, said Ariel Kalil, professor in the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Studies. Kalil studies the impact of parental job loss and unemployment on children and is undertaking new studies focused on the current recession. She found in previous studies of two-parent families that a paternal job loss impacted the welfare of children more significantly than a maternal loss.  Children were 1.6 times more likely to repeat a grade if their father lost a job. Among older children, a father’s job loss was associated with more suspensions and disruptions. For more on this study, visit the related article.
  • Parents who are stressed during their children's early years can leave an imprint on their sons' or daughters' genes - an imprint that lasts into adolescence and may affect how these genes are expressed later in life, according to a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of British Columbia. Dr. Marilyn Essex, a professor of psychiatry at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, has been conducting research on participants in the long-running Wisconsin Study of Families and Work. "This is very exciting because we've shown that day-to-day stress in early childhood can predict changes in DNA that can be observed in adolescence," says Essex. "It's further proof of the importance of those early years and the lasting effects of children's family environments during infancy and preschool." The team also found that fathers' stress level is more strongly associated with DNA methylation in daughters, while mothers' stress level has an effect with both boys and girls. This reinforces other research, including earlier work of Essex and colleagues, showing that the absence of fathers or their lack of participation in parenting is associated with an earlier onset of puberty and difficult temperamental traits in girls, but not in boys. For more on this study, visit the related article.


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