Stuck in the middle with you: How parents and children can get through the 'tween' years

Stuck in the middle with you: How parents and children can get through the ‘tween’ years

Pre-teens begin to see the good and bad in people — the ones they’re friends with can be fun, but also mean and nasty. Picture: iStock Not long ago, she got invited to Paw Patrol-themed birthday parties. Now, your 11-year-old is receiving invitations to pamper parties with beauty treatments. Only a few years ago she watched Shaun the Sheep — now she’s making TikTok videos.

The tween stage can catch parents off guard. And it can be equally disorientating for children — that nine to 12-year-old cohort who are on a bridge between young childhood and the teens. It’s a steep trajectory and child psychotherapist Colman Noctor says children can be at different stages of it. “Some will enter it much quicker. They’ll be racing towards the teens, while others will cling to childhood — hold onto the Lego, the stuff they enjoy that’s no longer deemed cool by the others.”

Noctor says as children approach the teens, they can struggle to come to terms with the unpredictability of people. “In primary school, friendship is very territorial — ‘you’re my best friend, I’m yours’ — it’s very contractual. Pre-teens begin to see the good and bad in people — the ones they’re friends with can be fun, but also mean and nasty. They see another side of people and their social world becomes more complex.”

They’re also beginning to anticipate — with some anxiety — the organisational autonomy that will be expected of them. Noctor sees this starting at about age 11 or 12 when secondary schools come to pitch their schools to sixth class pupils. “The impending change plays on their mind. They’re hearing about timetables, lockers, different classrooms, and they’re thinking ‘crikey, how am I going to cope with this?’”

Brain flux

Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15-Minute Parenting 8-12 Years, says the pre-teen stage is one of significant growth and development across cognitive, social, emotional and physical faculties. “Their brains are in a constant state of flux. This process of intense change can feel confusing for parents,” she says.

Tweens are gradually capable of greater degrees of logic, their pre-frontal cortex is still very immature, she says. “So we see evidence of emerging maturity, self-regulation and capacity for greater responsibility. But it’s mixed with flashes of temper and emotional meltdowns that seemingly come from nowhere. And it is all part of this stage of middle childhood.”

At this age, children start pulling away from parents and family as their hub of social development, and towards peers. “They become very focused on what they think their peers are thinking about them,” says Fortune.

Noctor says parents can struggle with seeing children become less communicative with them. “Tweens need to retreat. They start spending more […]

How to Help Young Children Build Resilience

How to Help Young Children Build Resilience

  • Between the global COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic downturn, last year was difficult for everyone.
  • Decades of research have documented serious consequences from chronic stress in childhood.
  • But psychologists have identified ways in which parents teach children how to cope with adversity.
  • Here’s how to teach children resilience in the new year.

Between the global COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic downturn, and widespread protests over racism, the last few years have been difficult for everyone. Many people are struggling, consumed with anxiety and stress, and finding themselves unable to sleep or focus.

As a developmental psychologist and researcher on anxiety and fear in infants and young children, I have been particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health. Many have not physically been in school consistently since March of 2020. They’re isolated from friends and relatives. Some fear that they or loved ones will contract the virus; they may be hurt in racial violence or violence at home—or they might lose their home in a wildfire or flood. These are very real-life stressors.

Decades of research have documented serious consequences from chronic stress in childhood (McEwen, 2011). But psychologists have identified ways in which parents teach children how to cope with adversity—an idea commonly known as resilience.

The Effects of Childhood Stress

Children cannot be protected from everything. Parents get divorced. Children grow up in poverty. Friends or loved ones are injured, fall ill, or die. Kids can experience neglect, physical or emotional abuse, or bullying. Families immigrate, end up homeless or live through natural disasters.

There can be long-term consequences (Masten et al., 1990). Hardship in childhood can physically alter the brain architecture of a developing child. It can impair cognitive and social-emotional development, impacting learning, memory, decision-making, and more.

Some children develop emotional problems, act out with aggressive or disruptive behavior, form unhealthy relationships, or end up in trouble with the law. School performance often suffers, ultimately limiting job and income opportunities. The risk of suicide or drug and alcohol abuse can increase (Khoury et al., 2010). Kids who are exposed to chronic stress may also develop lifelong health issues, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

So how do some kids thrive amidst serious challenges, while others are overwhelmed by them? Researchers in my field are working to identify what helps children overcome obstacles and flourish when the odds are stacked against them.

It seems to come down to both support and resilience. Resilience is defined as the ability to spring back, rebound, or readily recover from adversity. It’s a quality that allows people to be competent and accomplished despite tough circumstances. Some children from difficult backgrounds do well from a young age. Others bloom later, finding their paths once they reach adulthood.

Ann Masten, a pioneer in developmental psychology research, referred to resilience as “ordinary magic.” Resilient kids don’t have some kind of superpower that helps them persevere while others flounder. It isn’t a trait we’re born with; it’s something that can be fostered.

The Key Factors That Help Kids Build Resilience

The same executive function skills that create academic success seem to bestow critical coping strategies. With the capacity to focus, solve problems, and switch between tasks, children find ways to adapt and deal with obstacles in a healthy way.

Controlling behavior and emotions is also key. In a recent study, 8- to 17-year-olds who maintained emotional balance despite mistreatment were less likely to suffer from depression or other emotional problems.

However, relationships seem to be the foundation that keeps children grounded. “Attachment relationships” provide a lifelong sense of security and belonging. A parent’s or caregiver’s consistent support and protection are crucial for healthy development and the most important of these relationships. Other caring adults can help: friends, teachers, neighbors, coaches, mentors, or others. Having steadfast support lends stability and helps kids build self-esteem, self-reliance, and strength.

Study examines bonds between babies, parents

Study examines bonds between babies, parents

It may seem obvious, but the emotional bond babies develop with their parents is crucial — not only for their survival, but also to ensure positive outcomes throughout life.

Less-obvious, however, is how this bond — known as attachment — develops.

Secure attachment during infancy predicts healthy social-emotional outcomes across the lifespan. Insecure attachment foretells less-positive developmental outcomes for children, such as behavioral and academic problems.

Patty Kuo, assistant professor of child, youth and family studies, is leading a pilot project to explore how attachment security to mothers and fathers develops in a baby’s first 18 months — and how those attachment configurations predict outcomes in the child’s first three years.

She aims to identify key factors that influence how attachments are formed based on variations in parental sensitivity and availability, such as accessibility to the infant.

“While we know a lot about attachment security to moms, we don’t know much about attachment security to other caregivers, especially in family contexts,” said Kuo, a Child, Youth and Family Studies research affiliate. “But we do know the whole family unit matters to those relationships.”

Funded by an Office of Research and Economic Development Layman Award, Kuo worked to better understand what was happening at home with children and their parents. She recruited 50 parents — 25 couples — with infants in the Lincoln, Nebraska, area.

For three hours a week in one-hour segments, parents wore GoPro cameras to document their interactions with their children and each other in their home.

At first, researchers were concerned people would alter their behavior or interactions, knowing they were recording. But as Kuo and her team began to analyze the footage, they quickly discovered that was not the case.

“People got used to the camera and just went on with their daily lives,” Kuo said. “We got candid footage of people folding their laundry or doing other household chores, playing on their phones and otherwise not changing their routines — which is what we wanted for a nuanced view of what caregiving looks like in 2021.”

When the infants are about one year old, each parent will visit Kuo’s lab individually with their child to complete a Strange Situation test — a semi-structured procedure that enables researchers to observe and measure attachment security in young children within the context of caregiver relationships.

Kuo’s motivation for the project stemmed from “pure curiosity” about findings from her previous research that examined various infant attachment configurations to either or both parents.

“In those projects, we found that infants with a secure attachment to dad, but not mom, resulted in more negative outcomes — abnormal stress response, defiance toward parents, less ability to pay attention and focus,” she said. “One would think having any secure attachment to either parent would be good, but that wasn’t what we found. I continue to be puzzled by that and want to understand that phenomenon.”

To supplement her Layman funding, Kuo also has been awarded an Office of Research and Economic Development Biomedical Research Seed Grant for a related project to explore children’s stress and health biomarkers. Her team will collect saliva samples for cortisol, and stool samples to study the gut-brain axis, which consists of communication between the central and enteric nervous systems, and links the brain’s emotional and cognitive centers with peripheral intestinal functions.

For the new project, Kuo will work with Nebraska researchers Lorey Wheeler, CYFS research associate professor; Jessica Calvi, research assistant professor at the university’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior; and Jacques Izard, associate professor, Department of Food Science and Technology.

How are teachers using psychology in the classroom?

How are teachers using psychology in the classroom?

A child is not a statistic, roll number or a brick in the wall. Every child has a unique way to process life and learning and to impose a one-size-fits-all teaching methodology is insensitive and short-sighted. Research has repeatedly proven that every individual has a certain learning style that is informed by their upbringing, background, social and personal experiences. As educators, if we cannot address every nuance in a child’s personality, we can at least make an effort to understand the basics of educational psychology to help children learn better.

Labelling and castigating children for ‘acting out,’ ‘being difficult,’ calling them ‘emotionally unstable’ and making a bad example out of them is not unusual in schools. The damage this does to the delicate psyche of the child is inestimable. Labels like ‘slow’, ‘disruptive’ and ‘inattentive’ can scar a child forever.

Educational psychology is an attempt to approach a child with empathy as well as with knowledge about their emotional, cognitive, social and behavioural needs. The challenges that children are facing today are unprecedented. The pandemic has disrupted their education, their social life and altered their perception of the world forever. At such a time, it is even more important to make space for their anxieties, fears and possible inability to focus single-mindedly on academics.

For over two years, the lives of our children have been limited to their computer or mobile screens. Many have lost loved ones to Covid-19 and countless others have battled the infection themselves or seen their parents go through financial and emotional challenges. When they return to school, they will have to deal with the anxiety of whether classrooms and schools are pandemic proof, whether they can play just like before with their peers etc. This is why educators need to be prepared to not just educate but to create safe spaces for children to share what is on their minds. Instructional processes will have to recognise individual differences in learning and this is where educational psychology will help.

All-round development

In a nutshell, educational psychology is not just about how children are behaving or faring in academics but is focused on all-around development as they transition from childhood to adolescence. It teaches educators to understand that learning is retained in different ways and that instructional methods must address the social, emotional, and cognitive particularities of the pupils. Broadly speaking, educators can benefit from a study of developmental, behavioural and cognitive psychology.

The idea is to have an empirical perspective rather than have fixed, theory-based ideas about how to teach. Multiple perspectives about what causes certain behaviours, how conditioning impacts cognition, how emotions shape motivations for learning can all help teachers cultivate empathy and […]

ASD Symptoms May be Present Before Your Baby First Speaks

ASD Symptoms May be Present Before Your Baby First Speaks

  • Some infants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism, may exhibit social communication differences as early as 9 months of age, a new study suggests.
  • Compared to their typically developing peers, infants with ASD may show signs such as a lack of appropriate eye contact and inability to respond to attention.
  • However, these signs may not always be as apparent to parents. Hence, getting help from specialists with child development backgrounds could put concerns to rest.
  • The study’s findings also point to a critical window for targeted early intervention that could help children with ASD reach their full developmental potential.

Although speech is many parents’ first concern when spotting signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there may be other forms of communication that could point to autism early on in infancy, a new study has found.

Social communication skills such as eye gaze and facial expressions, for example, develop rapidly in the first year of life for babies — more specifically, between 9 to 12 months.

Developmental gains in these skills before the baby says their first words, generally around 12 to 18 months, may go unnoticed.

“Social communication differences are part of the diagnostic criteria for ASD. Yet, we don’t really know how early in life these differences appear. Beginning at around 9 months of age, typically developing infants use their eye gaze, facial expression, sounds, and gestures to communicate. They also begin to show very early play skills around this age,” said Dr. Jessica Bradshaw, assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina and corresponding author.

Bradshaw said she wanted to determine whether social communication differences were apparent as early as 9 months in infants who had a greater familial likelihood of autism, which is months before they would usually receive a diagnosis.

Published in the journal Child Development, the longitudinal research studied the social development of 124 infants between the years 2012 and 2016.

The researchers then carried out an early social-communication assessment at both 9 and 12 months, measuring the babies’ social, speech, and symbolic skills.

Later, when the babies reached the age of 2, researchers used gold standard diagnostic tools to see if any infants fit the ASD diagnostic criteria.

Infants who were later diagnosed with ASD showed significantly fewer social and early speech skills at 9 months of age, the study found.

And at 12 months, infants with ASD had lower performance scores on almost all measures of preverbal communication.

The infants with ASD showed the following three unique patterns of social-communication development:

  • Their communication with eye gaze, facial expressions, and sounds were “consistently low” between 9 and 12 months.
  • Their symbolic use of objects such as being creative with toys was delayed at 12 months.
  • There was a “growing gap” between typically developing infants and infants with ASD when it came to using gestures and the frequency of communication.

The findings are in line with previous research, which has shown that infants with ASD have specific areas of vulnerability and unique patterns of change that indicate a disorder.

“It was interesting to see that there were distinct patterns of social communication development from 9 to 12 months for infants who later developed ASD. Some skills were consistently low while other skills showed a ‘growing gap’ between 9 to 12 months,” said Bradshaw.

Dr. Mayra Mendez, a psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, said she was not surprised by the findings that indicated nonverbal social communication skills differed between typically developing infants and infants who are later diagnosed with ASD.

“The characteristics of ASD may be subtle and are qualitative in presentation rather than directly identifiable as atypical. This means that the quality of interactions and social-emotional presentation of an individual diagnosed with ASD differs from the quality of the same characteristics in typically developing children,” she said.

She explained that this quality is measured by the frequency, intensity, duration, degree, and number of behaviors present.

“In the first few years of life, salient signs of autism include lack of appropriate eye contact and inability to initiate or respond to joint attention that qualitatively varies in everyone. Since ASD does not just suddenly present, rather it evolves throughout the first 2 to 3 years of life with symptom presentation becoming more evident and noticeable from 18 months of age forward, it is not surprising to see that even in 9-12-month-old infants, subtle signs of social-emotional differences may be noticed.”
– Dr. Mayra Mendez

Mendez said the prospect of being able to spot symptoms of ASD as early as 9 to 12 months could empower parents, caregivers, and clinicians working with families, as well as increase awareness of social-emotional development, and support child and family interventions to ensure a child’s developmental is not hindered.

She acknowledged that research was limited on early ASD signs and symptoms before 18 months of age but that there was some anecdotal evidence from parents, such as videos.

“In such parent reports, the difference becomes more evident when language skills are expected to develop and when the expectations for social and relational engagement are anticipated at higher levels than those exhibited by the 2- to 3-year-old who presents with signs and symptoms of ASD,” she said.

Do Mindfulness Interventions Improve Obesity Rates in Children and Adolescents: A Review of the Evidence

Do Mindfulness Interventions Improve Obesity Rates in Children and Adolescents

Mindfulness interventions have shown promise in improving self-regulation, depression, anxiety, and stress levels across all ages. Obesity rates in children are rising worldwide. It has been postulated that through improvements in self-regulation with mindfulness interventions, obesity rates can be improved in children and adolescents. In this review, we attempt to explain how mindfulness interventions may impact obesity rates and obesity-related complications and give the current state of evidence for the following mindfulness interventions: Mindful Eating, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Yoga, Spirituality, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

Over the last 20 years, childhood obesity has become a major public health concern in the United States. According to the most recent data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2015–2016, 18.5% of American youth between the ages of 2 and 19 were classified as being obese using a body mass index (BMI) threshold >95% for age.1

The rate of obesity increases with age in children. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 have an obesity rate of 13.9% as compared to 20.6% in children between the ages of 12 and 19. In addition, obesity has some ethnic predispositions, with obesity rates being most prevalent among Hispanic and Non-Hispanic Black children with no significant difference between the sexes.1

Obesity begins in childhood due to a combination of genetic, social, physical, and psychological factors.2 As children with obesity age, they often develop obesity-related comorbidities including insulin resistance, early onset diabetes mellitus (DM), hypertension, hyperlipidemia, depression, and sleep apnea.3 These medical conditions often persist into childbearing years and adulthood.4 Pregnancies of women with obesity are more likely to have perinatal complications or be stillborn.5 Infants born to mothers with obesity have increased rates of neuropsychiatric disorders including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, eating disorders,6 and adult obesity.7 This circular pattern perpetuates, increasing obesity rates in all ages.

With the increase in families with obesity, pediatric medical providers are consistently charged with finding evidence-based treatments. One area of interest is the use of mindfulness interventions to modulate eating behaviors.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is a psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment.8 Mindfulness activities have been effective in altering human behavior to improve health promoting behaviors.9–11 In addition, mindfulness activities have consistently shown improvements in levels of stress and anxiety and increased stress has been associated with weight gain.9–12 For these reasons, it seems that mindfulness activities may provide value as a treatment option for patients with obesity.

Human Eating Behavior

To further understand how mindfulness may affect obesity, it seems paramount to understand the psychology of human eating behavior. Human eating behaviors are based on the existence of personal and psychological constraints that operate in addition to food availability. Figure 1 was created by Ulijaszek et al13 based on the initial work of Mela et al,14 and describes a mechanism where human body-weight homeostasis may be maintained or lost based on different factors including food availability, energy density of the diet, genetic, psychological, physiological, behavioral and cultural factors.

Through this theory of the psychological contribution of weight gain, it would be a logical deduction that being more mindful of emotions and how emotions affect eating behaviors would allow one to control what he or she eats. As a consequence, there may be decreased consumption of high calorie foods and increased consumption of healthier, low-calorie foods. With time, this change in food preference may lead to weight control or weight loss and decreased amounts of obesity.

Figure 1. This flow chart explains that when one is exposed to high fat, sweet, or highly processed foods combined with learned feeding behaviors, preferences for these foods may be established. The combination these preferences, Increased availability of unhealthy foods, loss of dietary control from social and cultural eating patterns, and emotional eating or eating environments, predisposes individuals to over-consumption of energy dense foods. This in turn leads to overeating, positive energy balance, and weight gain. Low physical activity and genetic predisposition may negatively impact the picture further.