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Nurses fight childhood poverty by supporting new parents

Published: Saturday, Dec. 29 2012 10:40 p.m. MST

Research suggests the root of these problems is stress, and low-income families are particularly vulnerable. "Economic stress is a particularly potent catalyst for a variety of family problems that contribute to the emotional and behavioral maladjustment in children," said Rand Conger, a professor at UC Davis who specializes in researching families' resiliency to economic pressure.

Conger's research on low-income families in rural Iowa shows that poverty impacts parenting style. Parents with low socio-economic status are more likely to display punitive behaviors such as yelling and shouting and less likely to display love and warmth through cuddling and hugging.

It's not that low-income parents don't want to lovingly and productively interact with their kids, but stress actually changes the brain's ability to respond to difficult situations, said Martha Wadsworth, a psychology professor at Penn State University.

When a person experiences stress, his or her prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that regulates reasoning and impulse control — basically turns off. To deal with the situation, the person has to take cues from parts of the brain that function in more reactive and automatic ways. This is why parents are more likely to respond negatively to their kids when they are stressed out, Wadsworth says.

Stress impacts children's brains in devastating ways too. In stressful situations, kids' "fight or flight" response system is activated, Nadine Burke Harris, a San Francisco-based pediatrician, said in an interview with National Public Radio. In some homes, the children are in a near-constant state of emergency, and when that happens, their prefrontal cortex doesn't develop properly. Without a fully functional prefrontal cortex, it is more difficult for these children to concentrate on schoolwork, control their tempers or think through the consequences of certain actions.

The power of good parenting

To demonstrate the power of parenting and why it is so important particularly when children are small, consider a study done by researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

These researchers noticed that some mother rats licked and groomed their babies while others did not. The mothers who engaged in this ritual were more likely to do it after graduate students handled their babies (in other words, when their babies were stressed out). Researchers found that rats who were licked and soothed as babies were more confident, did better in mazes, were more healthy and less fearful as adults than the rats who were not groomed by their mothers.

The human equivalent of grooming — cuddling and hugging — produces similarly positive outcomes. Numerous studies suggest that with humans, like with rats, good parenting can mitigate the effects of growing up in a stressful environment. When a parent is responsive to a child's needs, the child forms a secure attachment, which essentially protects it from the negative effects of stress on its body, according to Wadsworth's research.

Perhaps most promising, research suggests that good parenting can be taught.

Helping parents succeed

Kailey and Andrew were still in high school when they found out they were going to have a child. Their guidance counselor recommended they participate in a program to help first-time parents with limited resources prepare to be parents. "I wanted a better life for my baby than I had," Kailey said, explaining why she and her husband signed up.

Although they didn't know it at the time, what the Newtons signed up for was the oldest and most respected parental coaching programs in the nation: the Nurse Family Partnership. The 40-year-old federally funded program serves low-income, first-time parents. Registered nurses make home visits to patients during pregnancy, continuing until the child is 2. Their goal is to empower and educate parents whose children, by virtue of their family's stressful economic situation, are more at risk of suffering from neglect, abuse and behavioral disruption.

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