The power (or powerlessness) of parents to shape their children for good or ill continues to preoccupy psychologists and the public alike. Among evolutionary-minded developmental psychologists, one specific idea is that girls’ later attitudes to relationships is influenced by their fathers’ behaviour. For instance, US research has found that girls with disengaged, harsh, and often absent fathers are known to start having sex at a younger age, and to have more sexual partners. However many questions about these findings remain. For example: might other aspects of the girls’ childhoods be involved; what about genetic effects; and which aspects of poor-quality fathering are the most consequential?
A new study of pairs of sisters, published in Developmental Psychology, provides some specific answers, particularly that it is contact with a poor-quality father, not paternal absence, that affects their daughters’ later relationships, including their expectations of men, and, in turn, their sexual behaviour.
It’s well known that teenagers’ moods go through drastic changes. In particular, depressive symptoms – like feelings of low mood or self-loathing – tend to increase as they grow older. Now researchers have plotted out the exact trajectory of these depressive symptoms. In their recent paper in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Alex Kwong and colleagues from the University of Bristol report for the first time the points during teen development when symptoms increase most rapidly, on average – and they find that these timings differ between young men and women.
Most people find it easy to infer the emotional state underlying a scowl or beaming smile. But not all facial emotional signals are so obvious. Sensitivity to these less obvious emotional signals varies from one person to another and is a useful skill, improving relations with other people and benefiting psychological wellbeing. As well as varying between individuals, are there also shifts in this ability during a typical person’s life? And, if so, might these age-related changes be relevant to known high-risk periods for psychological problems and the onset of mental illness? A new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides some answers.
Claims that violent video games lead to aggression have been around since the days of Space Invaders. When young people are exposed to violent media, the theory goes, their aggressive thoughts become more prominent, leading them to commit acts of violence. But while several studies have found results that seem to back up this idea, the evidence is far from unequivocal.
Now a study published in Royal Society Open Sciencehas failed to find any association between the time spent playing violent video games and aggressive behaviour, adding to a growing body of literature that suggests that such a link has been overstated – or may not exist at all.
Anyone who has stood in the supermarket aisle trying to remember their shopping list might have wished for a larger brain. But when it comes to memory, bigger isn’t always better. A study published in Neuropsychologia has found that young children whose cerebral cortex is thinner in certain areas also tend to have better working memory.
Sure, it’s unlikely that a girl would ride a hippo or that a boy would drink onion juice, but as adults, we know that it’s not impossible. However, and in contrast to adults’ reasoning, for some time researchers have noticed a “striking phenomenon” (to quote the authors of a new paper) in young children’s thinking – that is, up to around the age of eight, they frequently assume that improbable events are actually impossible. In their paper in Developmental Psychology, Celina Bowman-Smith at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues have investigated whether asking children to consider the possibility of hypothetical events in a distant, far away country might help them to overcome this closed-minded thinking and realise that improbable doesn’t mean impossible.
Around 30 per cent of British children fail to meet expected targets in reading or maths at age 11. These children face a future of continuing difficulties in education, as well as poorer mental health and employment success. Understanding why some kids struggle – and providing them with tailored support as early as possible – is clearly vital. Some will be diagnosed with a specific disorder, such as Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder or dyslexia, and get targeted help. But many will not. And even many conventional diagnostic labels may be misleading, and fail to capture the true picture of a child’s problems, according to new work by a team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, which has come up with a radical, alternative approach.
Every child is born into a world far more complex than the womb it departed. Physically it’s made up of objects, distances, heights, which we know new-born infants are already oriented to read and make sense of. But their new world is also a social one, chock-full of agents with needs and intentions, and past findings show that infants are surprisingly quick to recognise much of this too.New research in PNAS adds to this literature, investigating the ability to make an important social distinction – between those who hold power due to respect and those who impose it through force – and finds that already by the time they are toddlers, infants can do this too.
According to the Mindset Theory, if you tell a child repeatedly that they’re smart, it makes them less willing to push themselves when they get stuck on an intellectual challenge, presumably because failure would threaten their self-image of being a “smart kid”. For this reason, effort-based praise – rewarding kids for “working hard” rather than “being smart” – is widely recommended (though it’s not the same for adults). But does a similar effect occur in the social sphere? What if you ask a child – as so many parents and surely teachers do – to “be a helper” as if it’s a category that you either belong to or you don’t?
Earlier research has found that young kids are more likely to try to help others when they are asked to “be helpers” instead of “to help”. But as Emily Foster-Hanson and her fellow researchers at New York University note, “Setbacks and difficulties are common features of children’s experience throughout development and into adulthood,” so it’s important to examine the effects of category labelling – like “being smart” or “being a helper” – when things go wrong for the child. And in their new paper, published in Child Development, they find that setbacks are more detrimental to a child labelled “a helper” than a child asked “to help”.
With an increasing number of young children transitioning socially to the gender opposite to their birth sex, and with rates of bullying and discrimination against transgender youth known to be high, researchers say it is important that we begin to understand more about how cisgender children (those whose gender identity matches their biological sex at birth) view their transgender peers. A new paper in the Journal of Cognition and Development is the first to explore the issue.