Families In Transition (F.I.T. Lab)
The focus of the FIT lab is to evaluate how social, biological and genetic mechanisms affect families as they navigate the normative transitions associated with the early childhood developmental period. Early childhood is filled with a number of challenges for parents and children; understanding hurdles to successfully navigating these transitions will aid efforts to prevent the development of behavior problems during early childhood.
The focus of the BAMBINI study is to evaluate mechanisms associated with the development of sensitive caregiving among parents. We have completed a pilot study in which we recruited approximately 40 mothers with 4 week old infants and followed them when their babies were 10 and 16 months of age. Results indicate that mothers’ depression was negatively associated with observed sensitive caregiving. Our next step with this work is to recruit a larger, economically diverse sample of mothers and infants and to begin to examine how increased caregiving demands and social stress associated with the early infancy period as well as depressive symptoms may undermine the development sensitive caregiving. We propose that the regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) mediates the direct association between depressive symptoms and social contextual stressors on change in sensitive caregiving. Moreover, elevated levels of maternal psychosocial resources are expected to moderate the association between depressive symptoms and social contextual stressors on HPA regulation and promote sensitive caregiving.
MOTHERS AND PRESCHOOLERS STUDY
Moving into the toddler years, the focus of the Mothers and Preschoolers study was to consider how socioeconomic disadvantage impacted the development of emotion and behavioral regulation among toddler and preschool aged children. Specifically, we hypothesized that the presence of increased social and economic stressors would make positive parenting more challenging for mothers, but that positive parenting strategies would still promote social and behavioral competence. 167 mothers, their 2 year old child and their Head Start eligible preschool aged child participated in three annual assessments when the youngest child was 2, 3, and 4 years old. Results suggest that children with a propensity towards more negative emotional reactivity seem to be more vulnerable to the negative impact of neighborhood disadvantage and harsh parenting.
FAMILY TRANSITIONS PROJECT
Beginning in 1989 with a sample of 450 two-parent families, their 7th grade (target) adolescent and a sibling within 4 years of the target adolescent, Dr. Conger and colleagues began studying the economic impact of the Iowa farm crisis on the quality of family relationships. In 1991, 100 9th graders (target) of single-parent, mother headed households and their sibling were added to the study. More than 20 years and hundreds of publications later, the Family Transitions Project has significantly shaped our understanding of the role of economic hardship on the quality of family life during adolescence and, importantly, how the quality of family relationships during adolescence affects the emerging family of procreation. Over 300 children of the original target participants are included in the study, as well as the target participants’ romantic partners. DNA has been collected from more than 2400 participants, including the original parents and siblings as well as target participants, romantic partners, and biological third generation children. This study is well poised to unpack geneotype x environmental influences on the development of social competence and mental health problems during adolescence, adulthood, and for the next generation.