The 6 Most Important Child Development Research Studies of 2011

Our Red-Hot Parenting blogger and the associate professor of psychiatry and behavior at Brown Medical School explains the new studies that are influencing the way parents think about child health and development.

The Biggest Research Studies of the Year

Although many important studies were published this year, some stand out because they not only offer new information, they also affect our way of thinking about parenting and child development. Some studies make us rethink what we thought was fact and wrestle with new issues; some bring fresh and unique insights into well-researched areas. Still others break new ground on emerging topics that are critically important for today's families. In no particular order, here are my choices for the six most important studies of 2011, five published in academic journals and one released as a publication by an independent nonprofit organization. These studies all have important messages for parents while pointing the way to what new research might be seen next year.

Study: Autism May Be Influenced By Environmental Factors

Study name: "Genetic heritability and shared environmental factors among twin pairs with autism," Hallmayer et al., 2011, Archives of General Psychiatry, Volume 68 (11), p. 1099 -1102.

What was found? By conducting a twin study that compared the similarity (concordance) of identical (MZ) twins and fraternal (DZ) twins for autism (a strict clinical definition) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD), this study reported that environmental factors -- specifically those that make twins similar -- are a major cause of autism. Genetic influences, although significant, were of less importance than the environment factors.

Why is this study influential? For the last three decades, the message from twin studies has been that autism is a genetic disorder. This new study, the largest twin study to date that uses the most modern diagnostic methods, fundamentally alters our thinking about the causes of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) by suggesting that research should be directed to potential pre-, peri-, and postnatal environmental risk factors. The results also support genetic influences and genomic research, but the overall message is that environmental risks for autism may be hugely important even after accounting for DNA.

What's the take-home message? Expect to hear a lot more about potential environmental contributions to be a risk for autism, including factors that affect the maternal fetal environment, such as exposure to toxins, use of prescription drugs (including antidepressants), and infections. Because many of these reports will be preliminary (and many more studies will be required to investigate these issues fully), pregnant women will have to sort through the uncertain implications with their practitioners to make decisions that best suit their lives (for example, whether to continue with or abandon antidepressant use).

Study: Self-Control During Childhood Leads to Fewer Problems During Adulthood

Study name: "A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety," Moffitt et al., 2011, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Volume 108, p. 2693 - 2698.

What was found? By tracking more than 1,000 kids from ages 3 to 32 and conducting detailed clinical and developmental assessments at many points during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, this study discovered that self-control (the age-appropriate ability to regulate emotions, delay gratification, and control impulses) in toddlerhood and early childhood predicts a number outcomes by the time an adult is 32 years old. These outcomes include physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offenses.

Why is this study influential? The gradual development of self-control has been well recognized as a critical goal for toddlers and young children, but this study offers unparalleled insight into the cascading effects of self-control throughout an individual's life. Young kids with low self-control are more likely to make bad choices and experience problems as teens (smoking, leaving school early, and having unplanned pregnancies), and they eventually suffer more difficulties as adults (criminal convictions, financial problems, and health issues). It's important to note that this association was not related to having clinically defined ADHD (it was still relevant after kids with ADHD were removed from the analyses). This report also suggests the potential impact of improving self-control; kids who started off with low self-control but increased it over time showed parallel improvements in their developmental outcomes.

What's the take-home message? This study suggests that focusing efforts on properly socializing self-control in toddlerhood and early childhood can reap massive benefits for kids, families, and societies. This is different than finding temporary fixes for handling temper tantrums or overdiagnosing and medicating very young kids who need to learn behavioral and emotional management (a growing trend in the U.S.). Parents should seek out consistent rearing strategies that encourage blossoming independence but also set limits and provide strategies for kids to connect desires with social realities. Expect to see more long-term studies that identify the key parenting elements that will encourage self-control through toddlerhood, childhood, and adolescence.

Study: Parents' Depression Corresponds with Children's Depression

Study name: "Remission of depression in parents: links to healthy functioning in their children," Garber et al., 2011, Child Development, Volume 82 (1), p. 226 - 243.

What was found? By conducting six observations across two years of parents (70 percent were moms) in treatment for depression, along with their kids, this study revealed that kids' symptoms of depression mirrored their parents' symptoms closely. These included decreases in symptoms that corresponded to treatment effects, increases in symptoms once treatment effects ended, and lack of improvement in depression if parents didn't respond to treatment.

Why is this study influential? Other studies have shown how treating parental depression leads to improved behavior in their kids. This study, however, demonstrates how episodic and harmful depression is in adults even after successful treatment, and how such recurring depression has an immediate corresponding negative impact on their kids' functioning. Another critical point is that parents need to find treatments that work for them (there are a variety of antidepressants, along with cognitive and behavioral therapies, and some time and effort may be required to find the right mix) because being in treatment is not enough, and treatment effects are not always long-lasting.

What's the take-home message? Depression is a common disorder, especially among women of childbearing and child-rearing age. It also affects men, but at a lower rate. Because kids are extremely sensitive to increases in parental depression, it's important for parents to learn the signs of depression, seek help, find a treatment that works, and be prepared to seek out new (and possibly different) treatment if depression recurs. Expect more studies that focus on treatment strategies for parents and kids at risk for depression and more studies about depressed dads and the effects of their depression on kids.

Study: Parental Military Deployment Raises Risk of Problems in Kids

Study name: "Deployment and mental health diagnoses among children of US Army personnel," Mansfield et al., 2011, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Volume 165 (11), p. 999 - 1005.

What was found? By examining more than 300,000 children (between ages 5 to 17) with at least one active-duty army parent, this study found a "dose-response" relationship between parental deployment and kids' psychological health. The more time a parent spent deployed (calculated in months), the more likely it was that a child developed a behavioral or emotional disorder (including acute stress disorders).

Why is this study influential? The new concerns here are the increased number of kids with deployed parents (a relatively new phenomenon corresponding to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom) and the multiples issues that arise from all stages of deployment (preparing for deployment, dealing with the absence of a parent, handling transitions after a parent returns from deployment, and grieving the death of a parent). There are now well over one million kids with a parent in active duty; nearly 75 percent of them are younger than 11 years old and almost half are younger than 5. This particular study focuses attention on a large population that has been under-recognized and under-served.

What's the take-home message? There is a profound need to increase civilian awareness of the challenges facing military families, many of who live in civilian communities. Neighbors, community leaders, and professionals (such as teachers and pediatricians) need to be aware of the daily sacrifices these families are making and be ready to offer appropriate types of support. The broader issues also expand to other families with frequent disruptions in their lives -- those with parents who travel often, parents working through custody arrangements, and so forth. Expect more research to focus on the special challenges facing military families, as well as how planned and unplanned disruptions in parental presence affect children's psychological health.

Study: Children's Sleep Habits Interfere With Cognitive Development

Study name: "Children's sleep and cognitive performance: A cross-domain analysis of change over time," Bub et al., 2011, Developmental Psychology, Volume 47 (6), p. 1504-1514.

What was found? By recording children's sleep problems and cognitive problems in 250 second- and third-grade students over a three-year period, this study showed that kids who reported problems with sleepiness during the day, with increased sleepiness over time, did not show growth in their cognitive development. Over time, this resulted in learning losses that were significant compared to the normative gains among kids without signs of sleep deprivation.

Why is this study influential? On average, kids don't sleep as much as they used to (or should), but this study shows that young kids who report being tired during the day (and who show signs of sleep deprivation) will most likely have long-term impairments during critical learning stages in childhood (that is, from second grade through fourth grade). These effects are especially strong among girls, possibly due to pubertal changes in the oldest girls that make them more susceptible to the effects of sleep deprivation. Most troubling is the discovery that lack of cognitive growth is cumulative; each year of sleepiness adversely interferes with the development of cognitive abilities.

What's the take-home message? There are many serious and negative consequences of childhood sleep deprivation. This study is sobering because it shows convincingly that lack of adequate sleep can undermine a child's ability to learn. All parents need to be vigilant about monitoring their kids' sleep, developing awareness for signs of sleep deprivation, and being ready to take action to improve their kids' sleep habits.

Study: Young Children's Consumption of Media Is Increasing

Study name: "Zero to eight: Children's media use in America," A Common Sense Media Research Study, Fall 2011.

What was found? By conducting interviews with 1,384 parents, this study provided detailed estimates about the high media use (TV, DVD, and mobile media that included tablets and smartphones) by kids between ages 0 to 8 years old. Some highlights include: 1) kids under age 2 spent an average of 53 minutes a day watching TV/DVD but only 23 minutes a day reading or being read to; 2) 42 percent of kids have a TV in their bedroom; 3) 53 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds have used a computer; 4) 52 percent of kids between ages 0 to 8 have access to mobile media.

Why is this study influential? Although media use has been tracked extensively, this is one of the first studies to generate descriptive data about kids' use of different media. The bottom line: Screen time is increasing for this digital generation, partly because of increased access to mobile media and computers and partly because of increased TV watching (increases over the last six years are the result of more kids having a TV in their bedroom). Professional recommendations continue to advise reductions in kids' screen time, including one offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics that kids under age 2 should not be watching TV.

What's the take-home message? Parents need to weigh the advantages of modern technology against the disadvantages of increased screen time, including interference with reading time, encouragement of sedentary behavior, and decreased opportunities for social interaction with parents and peers. This study is the tip of the iceberg, as researchers are just starting to observe how kids are adding mobile devices into their repertoire of media use. Expect more studies on the positive and negative effects of increased media consumption by kids. In the meantime, encourage reading as well as play and social interaction at all ages, given the amount of time kids are devoting to media use.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

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