Sunday, December 30th, 2012
Two areas of research caught my attention this year:
Tips For Parents: We all know that it’s good for parents to play with their kids, and read to them. But new studies continue to point out specific methods that parents can use – like specific ways to talk to your toddler when reading to them, and ways to use your voice and fingers to promote reading skills. Other studies highlighted how basic kid activities – like drawing – are connected (in perhaps surprising ways) to later school achievement. While some of these findings may seem intuitive, parents of toddlers are flooded with all kinds of suggestions (including costly ones) on how to give their kids an academic “edge”. It’s very nice to see research demonstrate that parents can use some simple strategies that are fun (and cost nothing) which result in real promotion of their kids cognitive development – and also reinforce how beneficial it is for parents and kids to spend time together in an “old-fashioned” way.
Getting Kids Enough Play Time: In addition to parent-child interaction, kids need to play – and by play, I mean the running around kind. It’s good for their bodies, and it is directly and indirectly good for their cognitive development (both in the short and long term). Yet new studies continue to reveal that a number of barriers are reducing how much play kids get. The take-home message for parents is quite clear: make sure your kids have plenty of opportunities to play, and do what you can to ensure that this is the case in preschool and beyond.
Time For Review via Shutterstock.com
Categories: Behavior, Health, Intervention, Must Read, Parenting, Red-Hot Parenting | Tags: 2012, cognitive development, Health, Kids Health, play, reading, Review, toddlers
Monday, April 30th, 2012
Unfortunately some babies, toddlers, and children are exposed to maltreatment and trauma – they can be witnesses to physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and partner violence, and also experience it directly. Prior research has shown that such exposure may have lasting negative effects on cognitive development. The lead author of a key new study – Dr. Michelle Bosquet Enlow of Children’s Hospital Boston – took the time to expand on her current findings and the implications for intervention. Below are her responses to specific questions I posed.
Could you briefly give a description of what you examined in your research?
Our research specifically studied child exposure to maltreatment (the large majority, though not all, at the hands of the mother) and domestic violence against the mother. These kinds of trauma exposures may require additional considerations compared to other types of traumas that do not involve the parent (for example, being involved in a serious car accident, death of a non-parental family member). For example, when the caregiver is the perpetrator of the trauma, the child may need to be removed from the caregiver’s custody and some of the answers below may not be as applicable.
Do we know yet what the mechanism might be that affects cognitive/brain development? How does trauma affect the developing brain especially early in life?
There are many ways that trauma may affect the developing brain. Certain types of trauma, such as physical abuse or neglect, may cause direct injury to the brain, for example through injury to the head or malnutrition. We also know that when humans face a stressor, especially an extreme stressor like a trauma, the body prepares to react to the stressor. Chronic or severe stressors can cause changes in how the body secretes and processes a number of hormones that affect how the brain functions. These effects may be particularly strong in early life when the brain is developing so rapidly. Any changes to the brain during this critical time may affect how the brain is organized, and therefore have lifelong consequences. Also, infants and young children have fewer coping resources to manage stress, given their immaturity and dependence on their caregivers. We know that caregivers have a critical role in fostering children’s cognitive development. Sensitive, warm, consistent, empathic caregiving is key. Finally, for many children, trauma exposure can lead to emotional difficulties, like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is true even for very young children. These difficulties can interfere with learning new skills. For example, a child with PTSD may be preoccupied by disturbing memories of the trauma and have difficulty sitting still and paying attention. This can make it difficult to pick up new cognitive skills.
If a baby/toddler is exposed, what can be done with respect to intervention? What could a parent or caretaker do to minimize the effects?
Caregivers are absolutely essential to children’s recovery after a trauma. First, caregivers need to make sure that they are taking proper care of themselves so that they can be most helpful to their child. Sometimes, a caregiver and child suffer the same trauma (for example, being in a car accident together). Just knowing that your child has suffered a trauma can be very upsetting to the caregiver. This may cause feelings of guilt, helplessness, depression, and anxiety and difficulties with sleep, appetite, and concentration. Caregivers should seek out help for themselves if they feel that they are having symptoms that are getting in the way of their ability to function or care for their child. They may talk to their primary care physician or seek out a counselor. They should make sure to get enough sleep and eat right and exercise if possible.
The other really important step caregivers can take is to help the child to feel safe again. Maintaining routines, such as the same bedtime rituals every night, is very important. Keep in mind that the child’s behaviors may change—for example, the child may become more clingy, have difficulty separating from the caregiver, have nightmares or resist going to bed, or not want to eat or want to eat a lot. The caregiver should do her best to be patient and remember that these are normal reactions. The child is not trying to manipulate anyone. If possible, the caregiver should try to minimize separations, at least temporarily. If a separation is necessary, the child should be left with someone she knows and trusts. A familiar object to keep while the caregiver is gone, like a photograph of the caregiver, may help. The child may need extra hugs and lap time to feel reassured. If the caregiver feels the need to talk about the trauma with someone, she should make sure that the child cannot overhear the conversation. However, if the child wants to talk about the trauma, she should be allowed to do so. She may need to talk through what happened and get reassurances that she is now safe. If the caregiver has concerns about the child, she should talk with the child’s pediatrician. There are counselors who treat traumatized children, even very young children. These counselors can be very helpful in giving caregivers advice about ways to help their child. For example, we treat traumatized children and their families in the Psychosocial Treatment Clinic in the Outpatient Psychiatry Service at Children’s Hospital Boston.
Any suggestions to help parents in a compromising situation seek out help to prevent exposing their baby to trauma?
If parents are feeling stressed, they should seek out help for themselves, for example by calling a parenting helpline or by talking with their primary care physician or a counselor or friends and family. Physicians and counselors should be able to help parents find resources if needed to get out of a domestic violence situation or to get help if there is child abuse or neglect. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has helpful information regarding child trauma, including information for parents and caregivers. Their website is www.nctsnet.org<http://www.nctsnet.org>.
Image depicting overcoming trauma via therapy courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Categories: Behavior, Health, Intervention, Must Read, Parenting, Questions, Red-Hot Parenting | Tags: cognitive development, exposure to interpersonal trauma, Health, interpersonal violence, intervention
Saturday, December 31st, 2011
There are lots of transitions in kids sleep patterns and habits, including big ones that happen during the toddler years. That said, there are also critical changes that occur during childhood and middle childhood (I’m focusing here on 5 – 11 years of age). Most importantly, this is a developmental period where the consequences of sleep deprivation can be especially harmful. So the 2nd installment of my three-part series on sleep challenges focuses on childhood and middle childhood.
What are the expectations? The biggest issue is that kids are in school for a good part of the year and as such are expected to have consistent sleep schedules that provide sufficient sleep to handle their cognitive, social, and emotional load. Kids between 5 and 11 years old should be getting between 10 and 11 hours of solid sleep every night, with consistent bedtimes and wake-up times. They also should not be tired during the day.
What are the challenges? Let’s start with the biggest challenge – understanding how much sleep your child actually needs and the negative consequences of not getting it. It’s troubling that study after study reports most kids get less sleep than they need – typically 1 hour less per night than is suggested. Add to this the observation from new studies that many kids get inconsistent sleep that can vary greatly from night to night. Such irregular sleep patterns have been shown to lead to substantial metabolic changes that promote risk for obesity and diabetes. And recent scientific reports – such as one that I flagged as one of the most influential studies of 2011 – have shown that sleep deprivation can have accumulating negative effects on cognitive development in childhood during key ages for learning (e.g., from 2nd grade through 4th grade). The culprits that undermine sleep can be many, including a lack of careful supervision of kids’ sleep habits, TV and electronics being available at bedtime (especially in the bedroom), increasing activities outside of school, and increasing time demands after school (such as homework).
How should you handle these challenges? We don’t typically think that sleep needs to be monitored in bigger kids like it does when we are dealing with babies or toddlers. But this isn’t true – in fact kids’ increasing independence screams out for parental monitoring given the sleep epidemic these days and the very real and serious consequences of sleep deprivation. A good start is to become familiar with the signs of sleep deprivation in children, which include the following
- being very hard to wake-up on a consistent basis
- sometimes falling asleep much earlier than usual
- falling asleep frequently in the car
- hearing from observers (such as teachers) that they seem tired, are yawning a lot, etc
If your child is showing some of these behaviors, it may be time to monitor their sleep habits more closely. Work backwards from when they need to get up and the amount of sleep they require to set a firm bedtime. Limit use of electronics before bedtime (maybe follow at a minimum a 30-minute rule – all technology gets shut down 30 minutes before bedtime). Promote reading as a good form of winding down. And try to be vigilant to make sure your child gets consistent sleep during the week – or put another way, try to avoid irregular sleep habits.
Image of sleeping child via Shutterstock.com
Categories: Behavior, Health, Parenting, Red-Hot Parenting | Tags: cognitive development, diabetes, Health, kids' sleep, kids' sleep problems, learning issues, obesity, sleep, sleep deprivation