Getting Silly With Kids has Proven Benefits

A recent study suggests that parents just getting silly with their kids can prevent problem behaviors like ADHD and aggression. Children, as it turns out, love it when their parents get silly with them. That could mean anything from using funny voices for characters in a storybook, or tapping the child’s nose when reading the word “nose.” And it seems that the benefits of getting silly with kids aren’t exclusive to story time. Any time you are playful with your children, you’re helping to shape their social and emotional development and behavior in a most positive way.

The study, Reading Aloud, Play and Social-Emotional Development (Pediatrics, February 2018), offered a special invention called the Video Interaction Project (VIP) to 225 families with children aged newborn to five years. In the VIP intervention, a program dating back to 1998, a parenting coach spends time with parents discussing their developmental goals for their children during a regular visit to the pediatrician. Parents are given age-appropriate educational toys and books to take home for their children. Then parents are directed to read to and play with their children and the session is captured on videotape. The parenting coach then has the parents watch the videotape, pointing out how children respond to the different thing parents do as they spend time with their children.

“They get to see themselves on videotape and it can be very eye-opening how their child reacts to them when they do different things,” said Adriana Weisleder, a co-author of the study, speaking to the New York Times. “We try to highlight the positive things in that interaction—maybe they feel a little silly, and then we show them on the tape how much their kid loves it when they do these things, how fun it is—it can be very motivating,” concludes Weisleider, who serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University.

Mother reads to two laughing girls
Getting silly during story time is a good thing.

As it turns out, the Video Interaction Project had already proven its worth before this most study took place. An earlier study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that 3-year-olds who had received the intervention had better behavior than those in the control group. They were far less likely to be hyperactive or aggressive than the children who received no intervention at all.

What the new study did was look at those same children a year and a half later, as the children neared the age of school entry. Were those early improvements in behavior still there? Did it really make that much of a difference in a child’s behavior when the playfulness of a parent/child interaction was pointed out to parents? The answer turns out to be yes, absolutely. The children whose families took part in those early interventions had better behavior. They didn’t have attention difficulties, weren’t hyperactive, showed less aggression. And these are the behaviors that can get in the way of a schoolchild’s learning.

The new study also had older children (3-5 years) receive a second intervention. The positive benefits of intervention were all the stronger for the extra “dose” the children received. After all, the intervention pushes positive parenting and the more of that, the better. Fact.

Little Girl touches smiling mothers nose as mom reads storybook
Getting silly during story time is as easy as letting your child “honk” the horn during story time. Your nose, of course, is the horn.

This is important because the children who take part in the VIP intervention are from low-income families. These children are at greater risk for ADHD and other behavior problems. Children who come to school with behavior issues are less likely to do well in school and get ahead.

What parents should learn from all this is that even if you have no money to spend on clothes for your children or fancy private schools, you can read to, play with, and get silly with your child and it will have a huge positive impact on your child’s emotional and social development, and his or her academic success, too. Dr. Weisleder explains that when parents read to and play with their children, they confront challenges that are outside their everyday experiences. Adults can help children think about how they can deal with these situations.

It could be simpler than that, of course. Getting silly with your kids means bonding with them, having a good time together. “Maybe engaging in more reading and play both directly reduces kids’ behavior problems because they’re happier and also makes parents enjoy their child more and view that relationship more positively,” says Weisleder.

Mother Reads to Daughter in tent with both holding flashlights and smiling
Getting silly can be all about location, location, location. Plus flashlights.

10 Suggestions for Getting Silly

We absolutely agree. And maybe we don’t need to analyze this so closely, but make sure instead to spend lots of time both reading to our children and getting silly with them. To that end, we offer 10 suggestions for getting silly with your kids (feel free to add to our list!):

  1. Hand-washing Fun. Sing “Happy Birthday” twice every time your child washes her hands (you too!). This is the amount of time needed to rinse off those germs with hot sudsy water. But a song makes washing fun and there’s just something ridiculous about singing happy birthday out of context.
  2. Dance Out Your Emotions. Put on some music and dance it out together with your child! Or call out emotions like “Happy” or “Sad” to your child and have her dance the different feelings as you name them.
  3. Tell A Silly Story Together. Take turns telling a story, breaking off at random with one of you taking up the narrative where the other leaves off (and so forth).
  4. Have a water balloon fight! Fill a bucket with tiny water balloons (water bombs). Then go to the nearest sports field and have at it. See who can throw the farthest. Getting wet is all part of the fun.
  5. Turn Getting Dressed Into a Game. For a toddler who hates getting dressed, turn it into a game. “Here comes the Zipper Monster” you can say as you pull up that zipper and make your child squeal with happy surprise. Or tease, “Where’s your head? Where are your arms?? Oh my, I can’t find them at all!” as you pull your child’s sweater over her head and arms.
  6. Use Funny Voices During Story Time. Use different voices for the characters (including animal characters!) in your child’s bedtime story to make the story come alive for her.
  7. Make a Silly Shadow Show. After you turn out the overhead lights leaving only the night light, make an awesome animal shadow show with your child on her bedroom wall. Make those shadows talk to each other, bump into each other, and fake yell at each other.
  1. Compose a Silly Family Symphony. At the dinner table, nod at each member of the family to add a phrase of made-up music or percussion. As each person joins in, you’ll have a crazy music round that sounds like a broken symphony! Keep it going until you all crack up laughing, then begin again, with new sounds and melodies.
  2. Speak Pig Latin. Teach your child Pig Latin and then have an entire conversation in that language!
  3. Make Silly Orange Wedge Smiles. Cut an orange into wedges. Eat the fruit, leaving the rind intact. Put the peels in your mouths over your closed teeth. Orange you glad you smiled? For a variation on this theme, top fingers with raspberry “caps” for instant “manicures.”Man getting silly with orange wedge smile

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Antagonistic Teachers Lower Scores, Hurt Academic Futures

Antagonistic teachers, or teachers who seem hostile much of the time, are a fact of life. We reassure school children suffering the misery of an unpleasant teacher who belittles them. We tell them that not every teacher they have will be amazing, that muddling through the year is just something they have to do. But a new study suggests that having antagonistic teachers not only lowers students’ grades, but affects their ability to learn in future.

Which suggests that the tack we’ve taken all along, as parents, has been wrong. Why would we tell our kids to put up and shut up with unpleasant teachers knowing this will not only affect their grade point average but sour them on learning, going forward? The simple answer is: we wouldn’t. We’d try like heck to get our children transferred to a different class, in order to avoid that awful, no good teacher.

The study, by researchers from West Virginia University, Morgantown, and California State University, Long Beach, and funded by the Taylor & Francis Group, defines the antagonistic teacher as one who belittles students, shows favoritism, or criticizes a student’s efforts. And while the participants of this randomized trial were college students, it seems likely the results could be even more profound among, for instance, adolescents whose brains are still maturing and whose behavior is more volatile as a result.

In this particular study, experts in communication set up a teaching experiment in which around 500 college undergrads watched one of two versions of a videotaped lecture. Half the students watched a version of the lecture in which the teacher antagonized students. The other half watched a standard lesson, without antagonism. The students then answered questions on how they felt about the lesson, and went on to take a multiple-choice quiz on the lesson content.

Lesson With Or Without Antagonistic Teacher

In order to make the student subjects feel like they were in a real classroom, the authors filmed the lecture to show four undergrad students, two guys in the front row, two young women in the second row. The study participants viewed the lectures as if they were students sitting in the third row, behind the students shown in the first two rows in the video. What happened next was very simple, very clear cut: the students who watched the video of the lesson served with a side order of antagonism, performed worse on the test than the students who watched the standard lesson, without an antagonistic teacher.

Just what kind of antagonism did the students face? Some examples:

Antagonistic teacher: “You should already know the answer to that question if you were paying attention to last class.”

Normal teacher: “We went over that last class, so it should be in your notes, but I can go over that with you later if you’d like.”

Teacher modeling positive behavior
Teacher models positive behavior

Antagonistic teacher: “Yup. Well, it looks like some people can keep up and pay attention.” [Looks at student # 1.] “Brian, you could try and be more like Brenda here.” [Brenda is student #3].

Normal teacher: “Yup. Thanks for keeping up and paying attention.”

In the video with the antagonistic teacher, the instructor belittled the students in the first two rows, criticizing their answers and showing favoritism toward one of the students while criticizing the others. It sounds quite bad enough, but the truth is, the antagonistic teacher never raised his voice. The study participants generally rated the instructor as more than “sometimes antagonistic,” but less than “often antagonistic.

And still, the results were significant. Even stunning.

Boy happy to be holding a stack of books
Students do well when they enjoy their lessons

The students who watched the class with the antagonistic teacher scored as much as 5 percent lower than those who watched the standard lesson. The implication seems obvious: students don’t do as well when they don’t enjoy their lessons.

And it would be a rare student indeed who would enjoy being belittled, criticized, or shunted aside in favor of other students. That kind of teacher behavior is arguably abuse. At a certain point, you’d tune out the lesson in order to tune out the abuse. You’d miss stuff.

Anyone would.

Antagonistic Teacher: Long-Lasting Effects

The thing is, this wasn’t just about a student’s score on a single test after one lesson that showed the effects of the antagonistic teacher. The effects were much longer-lasting than that. The students made less of an effort with their learning: after all, if you can’t please the teacher, what’s the point of working hard and doing well? The students with the hostile teacher, moreover, said they would never take part in a future course taught by that teacher, going forward.

Can you blame them?

Study author Dr. Alan Goodboy feels that the long-term consequences of having an antagonistic teacher are the real takeaway from this study. “Even slight antagonism, coupled with otherwise effective teaching, can demotivate students from being engaged and hinder their learning opportunities. So even one bad day of teaching can ruin a student’s perception of the teacher and create an unnecessary roadblock to learning for the rest of the term.”

In Dr. Goodboy’s opinion, teachers must therefore take particular care not to allow themselves to engage in this sort of negative and hostile behavior in the classroom. “Antagonism can come into classrooms unexpectedly and suddenly, even without the knowledge of the teachers themselves,” said Goodboy.

Antagonistic Teachers: Unaware of Their Own Behavior

Asked how an antagonistic teacher could be unaware of his own unpleasant behavior, Goodboy said, “We know that many instructors are unaware when they are misbehaving by antagonizing their students. We know this because they self-report at very low levels of misbehavior (or they don’t want to admit that they do it).”

Goodboy admits there is another kind of teacher who is very much aware of his or her own ill behavior in the classroom. For them it’s a choice. “There are plenty of instructors who are quite aware of their misbehavior and choose to belittle and put down their students in class. These instructors make the volitional decision to antagonize their students,” says Goodboy.

The results of this study, however, are without regard to the teacher’s intention. It’s all about the students’ perspective in relation to nasty teacher behavior, whether purposeful or otherwise. In general, explains Goodboy, the antagonism occurs at “very low levels, but when it does occur, it negatively impacts a learning environment as students do not enjoy learning the content and subsequently score worse on a quiz of that material.”

Dr. Goodboy believes that most teachers don’t engage in this sort of behavior, don’t antagonize their students. But where they do, learning is compromised. The researcher offers a suggestion that teachers be trained in self-awareness: to know when they are beginning to act in an antagonistic manner in the classroom. It’s critical for teachers to recognize and put a stop to this negative behavior that we now know can both damage a student’s grades and his or her attitude to learning in future.

Staying Positive No Matter What

Goodboy also suggests that teachers work at developing positive methods of interacting with students, maintaining an even behavioral keel, even when disagreements arise between student and teacher.

Will the researchers continue to pursue this topic further? Absolutely. The subject is too important to stop here. “These studies focus on instructor misbehaviors in a college context. We do not know that teacher misbehaviors in middle school or high school are similar to those with college aged adults. We believe that college instructors engage in hostility more than K-12 teachers, but without the data this is just speculation,” says Goodboy.

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Taylor & Francis Group. “Hostile teachers can lose students 5 percent on test scores.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 May 2018. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180510203744.htm

Underage Drinking: Having the Talk About Alcohol and Brain Health

Underage drinking can get in the way of the developing brain. And anything that gets in the way of the developing brain, for instance underage drinking, can interfere with academic performance. That means that kids who drink may grow up to be unemployed adults. If they don’t, for instance, get killed while driving under the influence of alcohol.

If you managed to follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion, your child can, too. It’s just that most parents haven’t thought to explain it to them, lay it all out on the table. Which is a shame, because doing so may just stop children from taking that first sip of alcohol.

That’s the conclusion of a new survey conducted by market research firm GfK on behalf of Ask, Listen, Learn, a program of Responsibility.org. More than 1,000 parents of children ages 10-17 took part in the November, 2017 survey, the results of which are in a report entitled, A Lifetime of Conversations: Kids, Alcohol, and the Developing Brain, issued just ahead of Alcohol Responsibility Month. The report also includes data culled from other research on the topic of underage drinking, along with important advice and perspectives from experts in the field.

Stunning details in the new report illustrate both how and when parents are having conversations with their children about underage drinking. This information helps us understand how we have managed to achieve a significant reduction in children’s alcohol consumption in the United States since 1991, when experts first began to track the point at which underage drinking begins.

Some conclusions from the report:

More Parents Are Talking the Talk.

The good news is that more parents are talking to their children about drinking alcohol. A majority (76 percent) of parents of children aged 10-17, have in fact, spoken to their children at least once during the past year about underage drinking. That represents an increase of 7 percent since 2003.[1]

Parents Wait Too Long to Have the Talk.

The report suggests that parents may be choosing to be reactive, rather than proactive in their conversations with their children about underage drinking and alcohol. Half of the parents surveyed wait until their children see something about drinking on television or social media, or until asked about underage drinking, before they begin the conversation about alcohol. They may be waiting too long at that: only 2 in 5 parents spoke to kids aged 10-14, though 23 percent of 8th graders (age 13 or so) have already tasted alcohol.

Too Many Parents Think: “My Kid Wouldn’t Drink.”

More than half the parents surveyed, 58 percent, or nearly 6 in 10 parents of children age 10-17, say their children won’t be needing to make any sort of decision about alcohol over the next three months. They think their children are too young to discuss drinking. This flies in the face of underage drinking statistics: 23 percent of 8th graders have drunk alcohol and 53 percent think it would be easy to get alcohol. These particular statistics only increase as children get to high school.

Parents Think Kids Are Too Young for the Talk.

Of parent participants of children aged 10-17 who have not yet spoken to their children about underage drinking, 46 percent say their children are too young to have a talk about drinking alcohol. This figure includes 60 percent of parents with children aged 10-14.

Parents Don’t Think About the Impact of Underage Drinking on Living a Healthy Lifestyle.

Only 15 percent of the parents surveyed listed avoiding underage drinking as a factor in children living a healthy lifestyle. Parents instead prioritized eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and staying away from smoking and drug use, as elements critical to living a healthy lifestyle.

Parents Don’t Talk About Underage Drinking and Brain Health.

Parents tend to speak to their children only about the immediate consequences of underage drinking, for instance alcohol poisoning or car crashes. Experts believe that parents should instead be discussing the impact of alcohol on brain development and the long-term effects of underage drinking, for example, memory issues and alcohol dependence. When asked to list reasons children shouldn’t drink, 4 out of 10 parents did not list brain health.

“Parents are the most powerful influence in kids’ decisions not to drink alcohol underage,” says Ralph Blackman, president and CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, the survey sponsor. “Past research demonstrates that when conversations between parents and kids about alcohol go up, underage drinking rates go down, but there is more that can be done to improve the effectiveness of these conversations.”

Experts like Blackman would like to see parents starting the conversation about underage drinking earlier, and they’d like them to continue the conversation as the child matures. Parents should begin the conversation before children are afforded an opportunity to drink alcohol, which means having that first conversation when a child is around 10 years old. By age 14, many children have already been offered a drink.

Does this mean that most children have been offered a drink by age 15? “No, not necessarily,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, family physician and youth development expert, who serves on the Ask, Listen, Learn education advisory board. “In fact, the overwhelming majority of kids this age have not tried alcohol. but as kids transition from middle school to high school, their chances of participating in underage drinking increase. According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2017 Monitoring the Future survey, 23 percent of 8th graders have reported drinking alcohol in their lifetime, which increases to 42 percent in 10th grade and 62 percent in 12th grade.

“While there is still work to be done, these numbers have significantly decreased since 1991, partly due to an increase in parent/child conversations around underage drinking. Ideally, parents should discuss the dangers of alcohol, including the impact of alcohol on the developing brain, early and often with their kids, so they truly understand the risks and can feel confident in saying no if approached with an opportunity to drink,” says Gilboa.

But some parents aren’t speaking to their children about alcohol at all. One in four parents surveyed said they either didn’t speak to their children about underage drinking, or can’t recall whether or not they had that talk. That’s a shame: children need to know about these things, about alcohol and its effects. Children are open, moreover, to hearing about what underage drinking can do to them, not just in the short-term, but over time. Learning the facts of what alcohol can do to their developing brains, appears to deter them from ever wanting to try alcohol in the first place, according to the experts.

The upshot: It’s great that more parents are having conversations about underage drinking with their kids, but experts wish they’d put a different spin on these talks, and speak about brain health as being the most important reason to avoid alcohol. “Create a foundation for these conversations with kids by answering their questions simply and clearly at any age, and actively discuss this topic by age nine or ten. At this time, kids are becoming very curious about their growing bodies and brains and are open to learning about how alcohol can impact both.

“Adolescence includes critical phases in brain development. The area of the brain that controls reasoning—helps us think before we act—matures later in the third decade of life. The sooner that parents speak with their children about the dangers of drinking alcohol underage, the better,” says Dr. Gilboa.

Survey Methodology

The Lifetime of Conversations study was conducted online with GfK’s Omnibus, using the web-enabled “KnowledgePanel,” a probability-based tool designed to represent the U.S. general population, not just the online population. The study consisted of 1,000 nationally representative interviews conducted between November 10 and 12, 2017 among adults aged 18+ with at least one child between ages 10 and 17. The margin of error is +/-3 percentage points for the full sample.

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[1] Responsibility.org, Wirthlin Worldwide National Quorum, May, 2003

Spanking? The Jury is in: It’s BAD

Spanking was never proven to be a bad thing, at least not scientifically. That is until now. University of Michigan researchers have looked at the data and finally and absolutely concluded that being spanked as a child may lead to an assortment of mental health issues in adulthood.

This new study was undertaken by Andrew Grogan-Kaylor and Shawna Lee, both assistant professors of social work at the University of Michigan. The work they did in tandem with their colleagues points to spanking in childhood as a form of violence, which leads to mental health issues such as depression, attempts at suicide, and moderate-to-heavy levels of substance abuse, such as alcohol or illegal drug use, later in life.

“Placing spanking in a similar category to physical/emotional abuse experiences would increase our understanding of these adult mental health problems,” says Grogan-Kaylor.

Spanking and Physical Abuse

The researchers noted the similarities between spanking and physical abuse: both involve using force and inflicting pain. Both are linked to similar mental health outcomes. These similarities caused the researchers to wonder whether spanking should be categorized as an “adverse childhood experience.” That would place spanking in the same basket with, for instance, abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Household dysfunction would include, among other things, divorce, or a parent in prison.

To a layman, the questions that comes to mind are: are the scientists looking to label spanking as abuse? Could it be that parents who are likely to spank their children are also more likely to use physical abuse, neglect their children, or run dysfunctional households? Just how big a study was this?

Also: can we finally lay this to rest and rule, unequivocally, that spanking is bad? Or is this just some psychobabble being spouted? Must we, as parents, pay attention?

It bears noting here that the study is based on data pulled from the CDC-Kaiser ACE study. “ACE” stands for “adverse childhood experiences.” The ACE study definitely represents a large enough sample to be statistically relevant. The number of participants stands at over 8,300, with an age range of 19-97 years. As for the methodology, the data was gathered by having people answer questionnaires when visiting an outpatient clinic for routine checkups.

Clinic patients were asked how often they were spanked during the first 18 years of life. They were also asked to describe their childhood households and whether an adult had abused them. Physical abuse was defined for the participants as pushing, grabbing, slapping, or shoving. Emotional abuse was described as being insulted or cursed.

Almost 55 percent of those who filled out the questionnaires reported having been spanked as children. Men were more likely to have been spanked compared to women. Minorities, except for Asians, were more likely, compared to whites, to say they’d been spanked.

Spanking and mental health connection according to gender and color
(photo credit: Michigan News)

Participants who reported being spanked as children, were more likely to be suffering from depression and other mental health problems.

What constitutes “spanking” in this study? Is spanking any time the hand is applied to the bottom, whether or not the parent is angry at the time? The researchers came up with this definition: “spanking is defined as using physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, to correct or control the youth’s behavior.”

A fair enough definition. But how do we know it’s spanking that is causing the mental health issues later in life and not some other factor? This author put the question to researcher Grogan-Kaylor, who responded as follows: “The question is a great one. The key question is whether we are comparing children who are otherwise alike. That is to say, are we comparing families and children that are otherwise alike with the exception of spanking? Statistical techniques allow us to ensure that we are comparing like to like, and to rule out a number of other alternative factors as possible causes.”

Spanking as “Adverse Childhood Reaction”

Grogan-Kaylor shared with this author two other papers he’d co-authored, The Case Against Physical Punishment, and, Unpacking the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult mental health. Both papers lend evidence to the theory that spanking can be seen as an “adverse childhood experience,” and therefore causes harm to the child, which may manifest only in adulthood, in the form of mental health issues. The former study illustrates this harm to the child through three theories: the attachment theory, the social learning theory, and finally, the coercion theory.

The attachment theory suggests that a child needs to feel absolutely sure of a parent’s love and care in order to flower. This sense of secure attachment to the parent is founded on parental empathy and sensitivity to children. Spanking then, is a way of responding to a child’s need for attention that erodes the child’s secure attachment to the parent by making the child feel degraded and rejected. Such children can develop feelings of being unworthy, which in turn can lead to depression and anxiety.

The social learning theory has children learning from example. The theory here is that when parents punish children for bad behavior by spanking them, children learn that violence is an acceptable method for correcting the misbehavior of others. Further complicating the message, is the fact that spanking stops the poor behavior, so that children learn that violence is an effective way to control and cope with interpersonal relations and for dealing with social interactions in general. In other words: violence is the way to work things out with people/relationships.

Coercion theory describes a cycle that occurs when the child rebels against the parent’s punishment. The parent may say, “If you don’t stop doing that, I’m going to spank you.”

Spanking: Vicious Cycle

The child may react with hostility to this situation, which causes the parent to “step up his game.” The intensification of the parent’s response comes with anger from the parent, which makes the child more rebellious. This “coercive cycle” continues to worsen until one side gives in. The parent may give up disciplining the child or the child may give in to his fear and pain and do as the parent wishes. In any event, one side “loses” and feels defeated. Defeated, one might emphasize, as opposed to feeling as though a problem has been resolved, or a lesson learned.

The latter paper shared with this author by Grogan-Kaylor does a fairly good job of showing that spanking in childhood is a risk factor for later mental illness independent of such adverse childhood experiences such as neglect; a parent in jail; or divorce. This suggests that spanking should also be included in an expanded understanding of the “adverse childhood experience.” This idea led to the current study, which concludes that spanking is absolutely an adverse childhood experience.

In terms of real life examples of how spanking is or isn’t used as a parent-rearing method, this author has often heard one mother say, “I don’t need to hit my children.”

The implication here is that there are other ways to make children behave, and they don’t involve violence.

Spanking as negative association

Another friend said she spanked her child just once, when her child ran out into traffic. This mother spanked her child out of equal measures of love and fear, out of a desire to preserve her child’s safety. It was a protective, knee-jerk reaction. In spanking her child this one single time, this mother meant to create an association: run into traffic=receive an unpleasant smack on the butt.

That child is today, what seems to be, to this author’s eyes, a well-adjusted adult, with no apparent mental illness. Also, that child never again ran into traffic. Thus, at least on a basic level, the parent achieved her aim: to create a negative association so the child would never repeat the behavior. Would that lesson have been driven home as effectively in any other manner?

There may be a generational factor in parents who did spank and parents who never do. Today, there is a greater awareness of abuse in all its forms. A parent may be reluctant to spank due to the perceived association between spanking and physical abuse. Back in the 1980’s, however, there was much less awareness of abuse and its effects. Even today, this is study is groundbreaking in that it suggests that spanking actually hurts children in terms of their future mental health.

Lead author of this study, Tracie Afifi, associate professor at the University of Manitoba, suggests we too often think about child abuse and its prevention, but not so much about harsh parenting. Afifi believes we need to put thought and effort into preventing this sort of parenting before it occurs. “This can be achieved by promoting evidence-based parenting programs and policies designed to prevent early adversities, and associated risk factors,” says co-author Shawna Lee, who is also a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “Prevention should be a critical direction for public health initiatives to take.”

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Maternal Fears: Your Child Smells it On You

Maternal fears are primal, instinctual; ready to be unleashed at the first sign of danger, either real or perceived.

Imagine this scenario: a door opens as a child’s pudgy fingers linger much too close to the door hinge. Her mother is nearby. Mom’s heart beats faster. She gasps and cries, “Watch out!” quickly moving the child’s fingers away from the source of danger.

Maternal heartbeat slows. Crisis averted. For now.

Growing up, it was heights that freaked out my mom. A railing overlooking the bottom floor of the mall, four stories up? If I dared to inch near to peer Maternal Fears: Your Child Smells it On Youover the side, my mom would put her hand over her heart and call my name. “Barbara,” she would say, urgency in her voice. “Move away from there.”

She didn’t scream. She didn’t snatch me away. But I heard that fear in her voice.

I moved away from the railing not so much because I was scared, but out of consideration for my mom because I saw her alarm. I wanted to put her out of her misery, ease her anxiety.

But today? I’m a mother now. A mother of many. And should one of my brood get too close to a railing, my heart will pound and the blood will rush to my face. “My God,” I will think to myself at such times, “I’ve turned into my mother.”

Which leads to the question: how do humans learn fear?

Scientists from the University of Michigan Medical School and New York University collaborated on a study to find out whether rats can “learn” fear from their mothers in the first few days after birth, even fears that relate to events that occurred prior to a mother’s pregnancy. The answer? An unqualified yes.

Maternal Fears: Your Child Smells it On You

Jacek Debiec, M.D., Ph.D., worked on the study during a fellowship at NYU under the tutelage of Regina Marie Sullivan, Ph.D., senior author of this just published work. Something had puzzled Debiec about his patients. A psychiatrist and neuroscientist from the U of M, Debiec is originally from Poland and has worked with the children of Holocaust survivors. These patients had well-developed “avoidance instincts,” and experienced nightmares, and astonishingly, even flashbacks of traumatic events their parents had suffered. Debiec felt there had to be some sort of underlying neurocognitive process at work that served as the catalyst for such phenomena.

Maternal Fears: Your Child Smells it On YouThis small seed of an idea: that maternal fears are somehow transferable, germinated into a study of mother rats and their pups. The working theory of the researchers was that mom gives off a smell when she is afraid. Her babies can lean to associate that smell with specific experiences. In this case, the researchers gave not-yet-pregnant rat mommy mild electric shocks while exposing her to the smell of peppermint.

After subsequent pregnancy and delivery, Mommy rat was once more exposed to the scent of peppermint, this time without the shocks, thus evoking the maternal fear response. A second group of rats served as a control group. These mommy rats were exposed to the scent of peppermint, but not conditioned to associate the scent with fear.Maternal Fears: Your Child Smells it On You

At this point the researchers exposed the baby rats of both groups to the smell of peppermint under various conditions both with and without the presence of the mommy rats.

The researchers wanted to pinpoint the area of the brain involved in the process of learning new fears. To this end, Imaging techniques were employed, along with a study of genetic activity in the brain cells and blood cortisol, to identify the lateral amygdala as the relevant brain structure implicated in this process. This same brain structure is called into use in later life to both detect and plan responses to threats. It made sense then, to the researchers, that the lateral amygdala is the brain structure called into action during the process of learning unfamiliar fears.

Mental health experts have long puzzled over the fact that maternal emotional trauma can have a profound effect on children born way after the fact. This research goes a long way toward explaining the phenomenon of maternal fear transmission. A paper detailing the study has been published in, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America.

The researchers hope to continue their work, concentrating on why not all children born to mothers who have experienced trauma suffer the identical effects.

According to Debiec, “During the early days of an infant rat’s life, they are immune to learning information about environmental dangers. But if their mother is the source of threat information, we have shown they can learn from her and produce lasting memories.”

Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear, very early in life. Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers’ experiences. Most importantly, these maternally-transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish.”

Debiec now hopes to reproduce these results in human infants and will be working with U-M psychiatrist Maria Muzik, M.D. and psychologist Kate Rosenblum, Ph.D., to begin the next phase of this research project. Muzik and Rosenblum manage a Women and Infants Mental Health clinic and research program and work with military families, too. The three are now seeking women and their children to participate in this research. Do you live nearby? Call the U-M Mental Health Research Line at (734) 232-0255 to get more information.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (DC009910, MH091451), and by a NARSAD Young Investigator Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and University of Michigan funds. Reference: www.pnas.org/