We would like to thank the many families who opened their homes and hearts to us, and gave so generously of their time to the longitudinal Kids, Families, and Places study over the years.
What do we know?
As all parents know from the moment babies are born, they are very different from one another. From very early on, they have their own needs, wants, and wishes. Even if living in the same house, raised by the same parents, and of the same age, siblings are surprisingly different from each other.
As a result of these differences, siblings provoke different reactions from those around them. When a child is angry, demanding and hard to soothe, parents can find themselves reacting more harshly to that child, than the sibling who is cheerful and easy-going. This is also true with siblings: one sibling can be liked by everyone, while another is found challenging by everyone.
Although there is no magic formula for the perfect way to raise kids, there are several key things that we now know are fundamentally important for the mental and emotional health of children.
Even though biological vulnerabilities exist (for example, a particular child’s genetic make-up, low birth weight, preterm birth), there is so much that parents and siblings can do to lessen the effects of those things. Through positive environmental experiences, a lot can be buffered. The importance of a positive family environment, sensitive and responsive parents and siblings that are tolerant to one another and can make a big difference.
What is responsive parenting?
Sensitive and responsive parenting means that a parent is emotionally available and responds to her child in a way that is appropriate for the child’s needs. To do that, a caregiver needs to try to put themselves in the child’s shoes, attempting to understand what it is she wants/needs/feels. For example, if your child is sad, a more sensitive response would be listening to her worries calmly and attentively, and offering reassuring feedback, rather than trying to cheer her up right away. Responsive parenting has been found to be a protective factor, which helps children develop important skills, (e.g. language) despite biological vulnerabilities. Responsive parenting has also been identified as a protective factor in the development of both internalizing and externalizing behaviours.
What is differential parenting?
Differential parenting is when one child is treated differently than their siblings. In most families, differences in the amount of affection and anger that children receive from their parents are slight. Such differences do not matter. In other families, however, the differences between the affection or anger that different siblings receive from parents can be very large. This can contribute to bad feelings in the family, fighting between siblings, and mental health problems in children. What can you do to lessen this? Use your children as your guide. If one child frequently complains that you are being unfair on him or her, think about how you could lessen it. Try to notice and praise the helpful things that your child does and point out the valuable characteristics that make him or her different from his or her siblings.
What are externalizing and internalizing behaviours?
Internalizing behaviours are negative behaviours that are directed toward the self, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, etc. Research has shown that genetics have a great influence on this. But family relationships are important too. High quality caregiving (such as responsive parenting) and affectionate sibling relationships have been linked to fewer internalizing problems, even for children at high genetic risk.
Externalizing behaviours are negative behaviours that are directed toward others and the environment. These behaviours include physical and verbal aggression, bullying, vandalism, etc. Genetics are really important here too. But again, positive parenting can help. When parents focus on praising and encouraging good behaviour while reducing their harshness and anger, children can show reductions in their externalizing problems.
Are there genetic influences on children’s behaviour?
Yes. A large number of twin studies have shown us that the genetic influence on children’s behaviour is strong. In the studies in our lab, we have looked at how differences in single genes are linked with children’s behaviour. Oxytocin and vasopressin are chemicals produced by the body that are related to social behaviours, such as bonding between parents and infants, affection, and cooperation. Also, we’ve discovered that the effects of these genes can be intensified by experiences in the home.
What is cognitive sensitivity?
Cognitive sensitivity is a special type of sensitivity. It requires “getting into” the other person’s mind with the intention of learning what their level of knowledge is, in order to understand the things they know and don’t know. When someone is being cognitively sensitive to another person, they engage in positive turn taking, provide clear instructions and help, and respond to the other person’s verbal and nonverbal cues. Research has shown that cognitive sensitivity in siblings yields a rich environment for children’s language development as well as their ability to cooperate.
What else do we know about preschoolers’ behaviour that matters?
Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability to identify own and others’ mental states (such as, desires, intentions, and beliefs), and recognizing how those affect behaviour. One can see why this ability is so important in social interactions. As ToM develops, children change the way in which they interact and respond to others, and develop more rewarding social relationships. Therefore, ToM is an important skill that emerges as part of healthy child development. Language has an important role in the development of ToM. The more advanced the child’s language is, the better their ToM skills become. We also know that ToM development is supported by positive, sensitive relationships.
Executive Functions are a set of cognitive processes, such as mental control and self-regulation that have to do with how one manages and organizes their resources in order to achieve something. More specifically, executive functions include things such as inhibition (the opposite of impulsivity), flexibility, emotional control, planning & organization, self-monitoring, etc. These skills also emerge as part of normal development and are linked to later academic performance.
Language is a very important component in later school performance. We know that parents who read more to and with their children help them develop better vocabulary and reading skills.
Adequate development of Theory of Mind, executive functions, and language is important for children’s later school readiness. Positive family environments provide the optimal conditions for those to emerge, and are therefore very important for healthy child development.