Adolescence is when values and relationships are formed and things happen that leave their sticky fingerprints on the life that follows. Even, it seems, in the everyday functioning of brain systems. New research published in Developmental Science shows that when teenagers have a positive relationship with their parents, then as adults their brains and bodies respond to stress in a way that helps them better engage with the world. However, the study suggests this benefit may be denied to those raised in a rough environment, which seems to override the influence of positive parenting.
What kind of parents produce creative children? Aside from the clear and substantial influence of the genes they pass on, evidence suggests that parents can also influence their children’s creativity through providing encouragement and the right environment. To understand what kind of parents are more inclined to take these steps, a new study in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity investigates the links between mothers’ personality and how much they cultivate for their child a ”climate of creativity”.
There are many effective psychological therapies to help teenagers with depression, anxiety or other mental health problems. Unfortunately, for various reasons, most teenagers never get access to a professional therapist. To overcome this problem, some researchers are exploring the potential of brief, “single-session” interventions that can be delivered cheaply and easily to many at-risk teenagers outside of a clinical context. In The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Jessica Schleider and John Weisz at Harvard University present extremely promising results from their trial of a 30-minute computer session teaching depressed and anxious teenagers that personality is malleable.
Do their homework or reach over there for the iPad and dive into a world of games? It’s the ever-present dilemma facing young children today. Here’s a simple technique that could tip the balance a little in favour of the homework. Psychologists have reported in Child Development that when four- to six-year-olds pretended to be Batman while they were doing a boring but important task, it helped them to resist distraction and stay more focused. The challenge now is to nail down exactly why the technique works, and to see if over time it could improve children’s self-regulation skills without them needing to go through the ritual of pretending to be someone else.
If you believed the copious alarmist commentary in the newspapers, you’d fear for the future of our species. Today’s children, we’re told, are more hyperactive and technology addicted than ever before. They’ve lost any ability to sit still, instead craving constant stimulation from digital devices and exhausted parents.
What might this mean for their performance on the most famous psychological measure of childhood self-control, Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test? Surely, kids of today will struggle far more than previous generations to resist the lure of one marshmallow (or other treat) now for the promise of two in ten minutes or so, as the task requires? In a new survey, the majority of child development experts certainly believed so.
Yet based on his analysis of 50 years worth of performance data on the Marshmallow Test – released as a preprint at the Open Science Framework – John Protzko at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concludes that in fact children of today are capable of more self-restraint than previous generations, with their ability to delay gratification having increased by about a minute per decade over the last 50 years.
Even the most scientifically trained among us have an instinct for mystical thinking – seeing purpose in nature, for example, or reading meaning in random coincidences. Psychologists think this is to do with the way our minds work at a fundamental level. We have evolved to be highly attuned to concepts relevant to our social lives, things like intentions and fairness. And we just can’t switch off this way of thinking, even when we’re contemplating the physical world.
This may explain the intuitive appeal of the Buddhist and Hindu notion of karmic justice – the idea, essentially, that you get what you deserve in life; that the cosmos rewards those who do good (variations of this idea are also spread by other religions). Indeed, in a new paper in Developmental Science, psychologists at Yale University have shown that children in the US as young as four are inclined to believe in, and actively seek, karmic justice, regardless of whether they come from a religious family or not.
“We conclude that, beginning early in development, children expect that life events are not purely random occurrences, but instead that they happen for an intended reason, such as rewarding people for their good behaviour,” said the study authors Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom.
Fussy eating – also referred to as “selective eating” in scholarly research – is incredibly common among children, with upper estimates placing the prevalence at 50 per cent. Despite this, many parents understandably fret when their kids avoid a lot of foods, won’t try new things and/or will only eat certain meals. They worry whether their child is getting enough vitamins and if their child’s fussiness is some kind of precursor to later more serious eating problems.
A new, small study in Eating Behaviors is the first to document how fussy eating develops in the same individuals over time into early adulthood and may provide a crumb (sorry) of comfort for anxious parents. It’s true that 60 per cent of fussy eating children in the study were also fussy eaters at age 23, but fussy eating young adults were no more likely to report signs of eating disorder than their non-fussy peers.
When young kids play together there’s often a lot of negotiation involved: “That’s my bunny”, “No, it’s mine”, “OK, you have it”. There’s talk of emotion: “Why are you crying?”, “You took my bunny”. And role-play: “You be baddie”, “No, I’m super-bunny”. Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising then that a recent meta-analysis found that young kids, aged 3 to 7, with more siblings have superior Theory of Mind (understanding other people’s mental states and perspectives – an important ability that benefits social and academic performance at school).
A new study in Journal of Cognition and Development asks whether the sibling advantage begins as early as toddlerhood, and whether it matters if a toddler’s sibling is older or younger. In fact, against expectations, toddlers with an older sibling showed no Theory of Mind advantage compared with only children, and toddlers with a younger sibling actually performed worse.
Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test of self-control is one of psychology’s iconic experimental set-ups. First conducted in the 1960s, Mischel told the kids he tested that if they managed to resist eating the marshmallow in front of them until he returned (usually about 15 minutes later), they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.
The children varied greatly in their powers of restraint and those who performed better displayed some cute distraction strategies, such as singing to themselves and covering their eyes. Perhaps most important, those kids who performed well at the test tended to do well in later life too, in terms of their health, education and career success. Given the huge impact this research has had, it’s amazing that it’s never been exported to a non-Western setting. Until now.
In a new paper in Child Development, Bettina Lamm and her colleagues have compared the performance of 125 4-year-olds from urban middle-class Germany with the performance of dozens of 4-year-olds from the Nso farming families of rural Cameroon. The Cameroonian kids aced the test, performing much better than their German peers. What’s more, their success seemed to be tied to the traditional, strict, hierarchical culture in which they’d been raised. The results challenge Western assumptions about what constitutes an ideal parenting style, and they provide another powerful demonstration of the urgent need for psychology to conduct more research outside of its usual Western focus.
Reading with a young child is important for their language development and early literacy skills. But does it matter if you read from an electronic book (e-book) or traditional print? As any parent knows, toddlers are generally keen on screens. So the finding, from a new study in Frontiers in Psychology, that very young children enjoy e-books more than print picture books, may not come as a huge surprise – but these additional findings might: both parents and toddlers behaved differently when reading electronic vs. print picture books. And the toddlers who read the e-books learned more.