Friday, October 18th, 2013
Even though parents teach children to consider others’ feelings and be kind starting in toddlerhood, the most important cognitive skills associated with empathy are still developing well into adolescence–later for boys than girls, according to a new six-year study published in the journal Developmental Psychology. More from The Wall Street Journal:
In adolescence, critical social skills that are needed to feel concern for other people and understand how they think are undergoing major changes. Adolescence has long been known as prime time for developing cognitive skills for self-control, or executive function.
“Cognitive empathy,” or the mental ability to take others’ perspective, begins rising steadily in girls at age 13, according to a six-year study published recently in Developmental Psychology. But boys don’t begin until age 15 to show gains in perspective-taking, which helps in problem-solving and avoiding conflict.
Adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in a related skill—affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings, according to the study, co-authored by Jolien van der Graaff, a doctoral candidate in the Research Centre Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fortunately, the boys’ sensitivity recovers in the late teens. Girls’ affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.
The riptides are often noticeable to parents. Susan Burkinshaw has tried to cultivate empathy in her two teenage sons, 16 and 18, since they were toddlers, encouraging them to think about others’ feelings. Yet one “went through a period in eighth grade where he was just a bear to deal with. He always had an attitude,” says Ms. Burkinshaw, of Germantown, Md. “Then as quickly as it came on, it turned back off again.”
The findings reflect a major expansion in researchers’ understanding of cognitive growth during adolescence, according to a 2012 research review co-authored by Ronald Dahl, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. Researchers used to believe that both forms of empathy were fully formed during childhood.
Now, it’s clear that “the brain regions that support social cognition, which helps us understand and interact with others successfully, continue to change dramatically” in the teens, says Jennifer Pfeifer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Preliminary research in her lab also suggests cognitive empathy rises in teens. The discoveries serve as a new lens for exploring such teen behaviors as bullying and drug abuse.
Image: Teen friends, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, October 1st, 2013
The number of children who are being prescribed medications for mental health conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety is stabilizing, even as the number of children diagnosed with those disorders continues to rise. More from Time.com:
From the early 1990s to the early 2000s, the number of young children on psychotropic drugs, which include anti-depressants, stimulants, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety agents, increased by two- to three- fold. Some drugs, including several ADHD medications, have been approved for use in children ages six to 12, while others have not studied long term in younger patients.
But in a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers report that psychotropic drug treatments among children is stabilizing, according to data from a national sample of more than 43,000 kids between the ages of two and five. These drug prescriptions peaked between 2002 and 2005, and leveled off from 2006 to 2009.
While more refined guidelines for diagnosing mood and behavioral disorders among children may explain some of the change in medication use, more stringent warnings about the potential risks of psychotropic drugs on youngsters probably also played a role. In the mid-2000s, the Food and Drug Administration started adding its strictest black box warning to antidepressant medications, alerting doctors and patients to the serious risks these treatments could pose for children and adolescents. For those reasons, more pediatric groups advise doctors to start their youngest patients on behavioral therapies first, before relying on medications to treat their symptoms. “Our findings underscore the need to ensure that doctors of very young children who are diagnosing ADHD, the most common diagnosis, and prescribing stimulants, the most common kind of psychotropic medications, are using the most up-to-date and stringent diagnostic criteria and clinical practice guidelines,” the authors conclude.
However, some recent research showed that more than one in five specialists who diagnose and recommend treatment for preschoolers with ADHD turn to drug therapy first, either alone or in tandem with behavior therapy.
Image: Child with prescription bottle, via Shutterstock
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Monday, September 30th, 2013
Up to a quarter of US kids may meet the criteria for a diagnosable anxiety disorder, according to new data from the National Institutes of Mental Health. Psychologist Lawrence J. Cohen, writing for Time.com, describes the situation:
Nowadays, there are still 10-20% with that reactive temperament, but the number of children with a diagnosable anxiety disorder has skyrocketed, up to 25% according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A report from the National Institutes of Health adds, “There is persuasive evidence from a range of studies that anxiety disorders are the most frequent mental disorders in children and adolescents….” These new numbers must be viewed skeptically, of course, because of the trend towards looser and broader definitions of mental illness. Many commentators have linked this trend to the influence of pharmaceutical companies on diagnosis and prescription patterns.
Despite these caveats, however, I believe that childhood anxiety is indeed on the rise at every level, from fears of monsters under the bed to phobias and panic attacks to severe anxiety disorders.
Last year I gave a lecture on childhood anxiety to parents at a public elementary school. I heard about children who couldn’t be in a different room from their parents, even to use the bathroom, children who were too afraid of the water to swim or even take a shower, and children who were too afraid of making a mistake to function well in the classroom.
Of course, these were parents who chose to attend a lecture on childhood anxiety, but many teachers have told me that they now have a number of highly anxious children in every class. What struck me most in this group was that none of these children was in therapy, and none had received an “official” diagnosis of an anxiety disorder (though I did give out a few business cards).
Image: Worried child, via Shutterstock
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Friday, September 13th, 2013
Group therapy sessions may prevent episodes of depression in at-risk teens, especially those whose parents are also depressed, according to a new study conducted at Boston Children’s Hospital. Reuters has more:
“What was exciting was the sustained effect over the length of the follow-up,” said lead author Dr. William R. Beardslee of the psychiatry department at Boston Children’s Hospital.
He and his coauthors had previously found a reduced risk of depression nine months after the cognitive behavioral therapy sessions began. The new results show that risk was still reduced two years after they ended.
The study included 316 teenagers of parents with current or past depressive disorders.
Half were assigned to the therapy program, which involved eight weekly 90-minute group sessions with a trained therapist followed by six monthly sessions, and the other half received standard care. The kids had symptoms of depression, but not diagnosable depressive disorders.
The researchers tracked teens’ “depressive episodes” lasting at least two weeks, as reported by the kids and their parents.
During the study and the two-year follow-up period – a total of 33 months – 37 percent of kids assigned to the therapy sessions had at least one depressive episode, versus 48 percent of those in the comparison group.
But that difference was only seen among teens whose parents were not clinically depressed when the study began.
When parents were not depressed at the time of the study, cognitive behavioral therapy prevented one depressive episode for every six kids in the program, the researchers found. However, for kids with currently depressed parents, therapy sessions didn’t seem to have an effect, they wrote in JAMA Psychiatry.
“First, we need to understand how current parental depression is related to differential outcomes,” Beardslee told Reuters Health. “Then, we need to target these factors to reduce their effects on child outcome.”
Image: Teens talking, via Shutterstock
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Friday, August 2nd, 2013
Significantly more girls than boys have committed an act of physical violence when dating, according to a longitudinal study presented this week at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting. More from NBC News:
For her study, Dorothy Espelage, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her colleagues conducted a longitudinal study among 625 students starting in grades 5, 6, and 7, and followed them over a period of four years. Researchers interviewed the students at intervals over that time.
The study looked at a spectrum of behaviors, ranging from name calling and expressing anger, spreading rumors, and using controlling behaviors such as keeping track of dating partners, to physical violence such as slapping, hitting and biting, and sexual violence including forced kissing. Taken as a whole, one in three reported being the victim of at least one of the behaviors on that spectrum.
While most of us may not rank name-calling, or bad-mouthing another to their friends as “violence,” the researchers say they included the psychological and relationship tactics because they can have a profound impact.
“We see in other research that the psychological stuff has just as much of a negative impact on health outcomes as the physical and sexual” violence, said Carlos Cuevas, associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, who is also presenting a study on youth dating violence at meeting.
Image: Teen couple arguing, via Shutterstock
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