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Evans

Evans

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 31, 2011

Chronic stress in childhood can hurt children and teens physically, mentally and emotionally. However, having a sensitive, responsive mother can reduce at least one of these harmful effects, reports a new Cornell study. It shows that such moms can help buffer the effects of chronic stress on teens' working memories.

The study, published in Development and Psychopathology (23), sheds light on why some children are surprisingly resilient and seemingly unharmed despite growing up in difficult, high-stress situations. It was authored by Stacey N. Doan, Ph.D. '10, assistant professor of psychology at Boston University, and environmental psychologist Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in the College of Human Ecology.

Earlier research by Evans showed that the chronic high stress of children living in poverty was linked to working memory deficits in young adults. Working memory -- the ability to temporarily hold information in mind -- is critical for tasks like learning and problem-solving, he said.

The new study used longitudinal data on children and families in rural upstate New York when the children were about 9, 13 and 17 years old. More than half of the families were low-income. Wave 1 included 1,342 children, wave 2 involved 195 and wave 3 involved 214. Allostatic load -- a measure of stress-induced changes in neuroendocrine hormonal systems, cardiovascular responses and metabolism that indicate the severity of wear and tear that cumulative strain puts on organs and tissues -- was assessed in the 9- and 13-year-olds. Maternal responsiveness was measured when the children were 13 years of age, by rating during games such maternal behaviors as cooperation, helping and adaptability to their child's mood and abilities, and by their children's perception of how much their mothers helped with homework, were willingness to talk when needed, spent time doing enjoyable things with the child or knowing where the child was after school. Children's working memory was assessed when they were 17.

The study confirmed that low-income children with higher levels of allostatic load tended to have worse working memory -- but only when maternal responsiveness was medium to low.

"Although high chronic stress in childhood appears to be problematic for working memory among young adults, if during the childhood period you had a more responsive, sensitive parent, you have some protection," Evans said.

Next, the researchers plan to determine whether allostatic load has direct effects on brain areas associated with working memory and to explore whether maternal responsiveness buffers some of the effects of chronic stress via better self-regulation/coping strategies in their children or by influencing levels of stress hormone, for example.

Evans noted that the study underscores the potential for interventions to break the poverty-stress-working memory link, which may be one pathway by which children growing up in poverty fall behind in school. The authors also emphasize, however, that parenting is not sufficient or even the best way to overcome the adverse consequences of childhood poverty. The impacts of poverty, they said, far outweigh the protective effects of maternal responsiveness. Ultimately poverty must be dealt with by more equitable and generous sharing of resources throughout society.

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundations and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

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College of Human Ecology
Gary Evans

Schelhas-Miller

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, June 27, 2011

Thanks to the long reach of texting, Skype, Facebook and other social media, college students have never been more connected to their parents -- trading messages and speaking an average of 13 times per week according to one study.

But such frequent contact raises the temptation for parents to run their children's lives, sometimes going as far as selecting their courses, editing assignments and intervening in disciplinary and academic matters.

In her newly updated book, "Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years" (St. Martin's Griffin), Christine Schelhas-Miller, senior lecturer in the College of Human Ecology, gives parents practical advice on loosening the so-called electronic umbilical cord, along with tips for such common challenges as the freshman 15, internships, roommate problems, financial pressures and time management.

For the guide, co-authored with Helen Johnson, an educational consultant and former director of Cornell's Parents' Program, Schelhas-Miller shares her wisdom gained in 30 years as an educator, adviser and residence hall director -- as well as the mother of two college-age daughters. Her key advice: Parents need to relinquish control over their children's lives and "change their roles from supervisors to consultants."

"As a faculty member, parents call me when their children are dissatisfied with grades, and it's become all too common to find parents editing students' papers," said Schelhas-Miller. "The risk is having children who graduate without the skills to make decisions, solve problems and take responsibility for their own lives."

Schelhas-Miller teaches several courses in the Department of Human Development, including the popular Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood, where she discovered that many Cornell students are no different than their peers when it comes to continuous contact with their parents.

The first edition of the book published in 2000.

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

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Christine Schelhas-Miller
College of Human Ecology
Department of Human Development

Gary Evans, developmental and environmental psychologist at Cornell University, is PI on a Grand Opportunity award from the National Institutes of Health called "Childhood Poverty and Brain Development: The Role of Chronic Stress and Parenting." Evans is the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development. One fifth of America's children grow up in poverty.  While there is good evidence that this is harmful to health, achievement, and socio-emotional adjustment, very little is known about the brain basis that mediates the detrimental effects of poverty.

The two-year research plan will utilize a well-characterized longitudinal sample of low- and middle-income individuals in combination with a comprehensive set of conceptually derived, innovative and validated neuroimaging tests to address two critical questions: How childhood poverty influences adult brain structure and function; and what underlying mechanisms might account for childhood poverty - brain relationships.  The invesitgators hypothesize that chronic physiological stress dysregulation as well as harsh, unresponsive parenting during childhood will account for some of the expected linkages between childhood poverty - adult brain structure and function - particularly in the hippocampus, amygdala, and the anterior cingulate/medial prefrontal cortex.

The project will utilize a 14 year, ongoing longitudinal research program of low and middle-income individuals focused on childhood poverty, physiological stress, and socio-emotional development conducted by Evans. Half of this sample (now age 22) grew up below the poverty line and half are middle income.  The sample is well characterized over their life course in terms of socioeconomic status and other demographic variables, as well as both physical and psychosocial risk exposures.  Primary outcome variables for this longitudinal cohort include multiple methodological indicators of physiological stress (neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and metabolic) along with parental, self, and teacher ratings of socioemotional development (internalization, externalization, self regulation. In depth data on parenting are also included.

The neuroimaging work will be conducted in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan by Israel Liberzon, with expertise in the neuroimaging of stress in health and mental illness, and by James Swain a child psychiatrist studying the brain basis of parenting.

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