Posts Tagged ‘ children ’

Stimulating The Scientist Inside Your Child: “Family Sky Fun”

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

There have been many laments by educators, psychologists, and pediatricians that children do not explore nature enough these days. A recent feature at talked about the unique learning opportunities parents can give their kids by visiting nature places. But you can also find opportunities to stimulate your child’s scientific thinking right at home, just by looking up at the sky.  

Dr. Juan Ivaldi, a chemist, author, and astronomy educator, has recently written a wonderful piece called “Family Sky Fun: Five Ways to Have Fun With the Sky” on his blog devoted to essential astronomy. He suggests five interactive ways for parents to explore the sky, both day and night, with their children. These include:

  • Making a human sundial (all you need is a sunny day, a piece of chalk if you have a sidewalk or paved driveway, or a stick or rock if you are in your backyard or a field)
  • Tracking the phases of the moon (it only takes a few minutes per day for about a month)
  • Holding in your hand the elements that make up the moon (hint: you just need dirt and rocks)
  • Finding the brightest star in the sky (you can combine this with eating s’mores if you like)
  • Locating constellations (particularly the Big Dipper and Orion)

You can read the details of how to do these things with your kids on Dr. Ivaldi’s blog. What’s really great about his suggestions is that they:

  • Promote parent-child interaction
  • Get kids (and parents) outside
  • Train young eyes to perceive the natural world

Every child experiences a sense of wonder about nature. So while buying science-based toys and visiting museums are terrific ways to expose your child to science, there is no substitute for getting children outside and giving them ways to explore the world. After all, that’s what scientists do!

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When Moms Get Depressed, Part Two: The Environmental Influence on Kids

Friday, June 17th, 2011

JAACAP.jpegIn my last post, I discussed a recent study that provided new evidence on how kids with depressed moms are at risk for depression. Another study (from the same issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) has provided novel evidence that some of this risk is environmental. First I’ll explain what they found — and then discuss why it’s important.

The researchers examined families in which children were conceived by assisted reproduction. In some families, the mom was biologically related to her child; in others, she wasn’t. From the scientific perspective, this is a modern twist on the adoption study method. The study could then look at the links between maternal depression and symptoms of depression in their kids when there was — and wasn’t — a genetic relationship between them.

They found significant associations between moms’ levels of depressive symptoms and those in their children, both in childhood and in early adolescence. These associations were not influenced by the genetic relationship — they were similar whether or not the mom was the biological mom. The conclusion is that there is an enviromental effect of being exposed to mom’s depression.

I feel that it is really important to highlight environmental pathways these days. So much of the scientific climate has been directed to genetic effects (on nearly everything). Certainly genes will play a role in determining which children and adolescents go on to suffer from recurrent or severe depression. There is also a long history of interest in “gene-environment” interaction — some youth may be genetically resilient to exposure, whereas others may be highly sensitive to it. All that said, there have been a number of studies over the last two decades that demonstrate purely environmental effects on depressive symptoms in children and young adolescents (I’ve done some of this work myself). And the important thing about that replicated finding is that is suggests there may be immediate ways of changing the environment to improve the emotional well-being of kids who have a depressed mom.

In my next post, I will focus on research that shows what happens to kids when their moms get treated for depression. Teaser: it’s a good thing for them.

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Predicting the Future For Your Child: Using Longitudinal Studies

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

We all certainly parent in the moment with immediate goals in mind. Lots of the information we take from science is used to help us do this. We can learn about different sleep methods and try them out. We can get tips on how to handle temper tantrums and see if they work. We can discover ways to promote reading skills and start to use them. But one of the most important things we can get out of research is how our parenting today impacts our child’s behavior in the future.

The reason for this is that many research projects use a longitudinal design. Simply put, they follow parents and kids over and over again. Sometimes these studies are relatively short (say covering a six-month period). Some last longer (say five years). And some go on for decades, and follow development from infancy to adulthood.

I will focus quite a bit on longitudinal studies in my future posts because they provide a “crystal ball” into children’s futures. Like any enterprise that focuses on prediction, it is “probabilistic” – research can only reveal trends and percentages and statistical weighings on the likelihood of outcomes. Research studies also summarize the patterns that are observed for groups of children, so it’s not the case that we can take the results of one study and apply it with precision to a given child. And let’s face it, chance plays a role in every one’s life.

All that said, however, well-designed longitudinal studies can at least give us a glimpse into what happens over time and predictors of positive (and negative) outcomes across development. If I am selecting a given sleep method, I’d like to have an educated guess about how it will work tonight — but I’d also like to know if it will have an impact on my child’s sleep behavior next month and next year. There are lots of ways of handling temper tantrums. If I decide to go with one school of thought over another, it would be helpful to find out how quickly a given approach will eliminate the tantrums — but also the likelihood of explosive behavior a year later, and even five years later. If I read about ways to promote reading skills in toddlerhood, I would definitely like to know if it really does lead to advances in reading ten years later. This type of information can come from good research, and it’s the type of take-home message I’d like to share with parents on a frequent basis.

Science isn’t all knowing. And it can’t tell us how to parent – we make that choice. But it can give us unique information about the links between how we parent today, and what our children are doing in the future.

Image courtesy of jscreationzs via

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Children and Divorce: Promoting Resiliency

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Divorce is not uncommon in our society — nearly half of all first marriages end in divorce. As a result, large numbers of children experience divorce first hand. A recent review provides the following figures:

  • divorce affects over 1.5 million youth each year
  • 34% of children will see their parents divorce by the time they turn 16 years old

How do kids who live with divorce make out? Divorce can have a number of negative effects on behavioral and emotional adjustment that can extend into adolescence and adulthood. It’s important to point out that NOT EVERY child who experiences divorce has adjustment problems — but the likelihood of this happening is significantly higher when compared to children who have not experienced divorce.

Researchers have been zeroing in on the key reasons for this, along with ways to derail this process. Current studies (including one published this year by Dr. Clorinda Velez and colleagues) focus on ways to promote a positive parent-child relationship in the face of divorce. Divorced moms deal with multiple sources of distress (including feelings of loss, lingering animosity, real-life consequences of being a single parent) that can drain their emotional resources. As a result, it can become harder to maintain “positive” parenting, which includes (among other things) the following features:

  • using a warm, friendly voice
  • being patient
  • encouraging open conversation

What is promising is that intervention programs that help mothers focus on maintaining positive parenting can have very positive effects on their children. The Velez et al. study demonstrated that the children who experienced divorce when they were between 9-12 years of age have increased coping skills (both 6 months and 6 years later) that are tied to improvements in positive parenting gained by an intervention. The coping behaviors include things like having proactive problem solving skills and decision making styles, and finding ways to maintain positivity and optimism in the face of stressors. Coping skills are critical because experiencing a profound stressor like divorce can lead children to develop maladaptive ways for handling adversity.

Dealing with a divorce is complex, but especially so when you are a parent. My fellow blogger, Julia Landry, is providing us with an eloquent account of the challenges she is currently facing. As you will find in reading her posts, coping well with adversities in life not only helps us as adults, but also gives our children a platform of resiliency that bodes well for their development.

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono via

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