Depression, suicidal thoughts, extreme anxiousness, alcohol and drug use, aggression. These are all things we hope will not trouble our children. How can we keep them safe and thriving?
The first column in this series described how intervening early can avert many behavioral or substance use problems that could otherwise emerge during adolescence and young adulthood. National research conducted over the past 30-plus years (including here in New Mexico!) consistently shows that these interventions often lead to positive benefits throughout life.
The fundamental principle is simple: Intervening early in childhood can keep a child on a positive pathway throughout life. Problems that arise during adolescence have their roots much earlier in childhood. Prevention interventions have strong effects when applied early when a child’s life is most easily set on a positive course.
Risk Factors and Protective Factors
Early intervention can affect two sets of factors that determine the likelihood that children will have behavioral difficulties or fall into alcohol and drug use problems as they grow older. Risk factors are aspects of children or their environments that negatively affect development and increase risk later problems. Protective factors are qualities of children or their environments that promote successful coping and adaption to life situations. Protective factors can lessen the negative impact of risk factors.
Every child has some mix of both factors. Most important to preventing later problems is changing the balance so that the protective factors outweigh the risk factors. Factors may be internal to the child (genetic and personality traits or specific behaviors) or external (arising from the child’s environment) or result from the interaction between them.
What are some important childhood risk factors?
Stress: All children experience stress, and in fact some stress helps them develop skills to meet life’s challenges. But chronic stressors like family poverty, and intense, prolonged stress like abuse and maltreatment, long-term illness or a parent’s mental health problems can diminish the child’s ability to cope.
Insecure attachment: Attachment is the bond that develops between parent and child from an early age. Usually this is positive and secure, but sometimes children fail to develop secure attachments to their parents and feel that their world is unsafe. Insecure attachments can lead to problems with acting-out behaviors at school and at home, poor school success, and associations with peers who also display multiple problem behaviors.
Difficult temperament and Uncontrolled aggression: A difficult temperament in infancy may lead to problems with emotional self-regulation later and strain the parent-child relationship, as well as provoke negative interactions with peers and teachers. Uncontrolled aggression as a toddler can lead to problems when the child enters school, such as peer rejection and frequent punishment for misbehavior.
The more risk factors, the more likely the child will experience serious problems – both during childhood and later. Unfortunately, many risk factors cluster together. For example, family poverty reduces resources for providing good food, consistent medical care, and reliable childcare, and may be linked with poor pre- and neo-natal situations and poor nutrition. Poverty also reduces the time and energy parents can devote to their children, and thus may lead to problems with attachment.
Some important protective factors to offset risk
Strong parenting skills: Parents who are highly responsive and interactive with their infant set the stage for a strong attachment. Parenting behaviors such as warmth, consistency, age-appropriate expectations, consistent routines and rules, and praise for accomplishments all support healthy development.
An Easy temperament helps children adapt to a variety of situations in the family, at school, and in other social contexts. Behavioral self-control and Readiness for school can ease the challenges of school transitions and lead to academic and interpersonal success. Finally, opportunities for Social interaction with peers and Physical exercise promote healthy socialization skills, physical health, and even positive cognitive and brain development.
The clinical, school, and community support programs at Taos Behavioral Health focus on enhancing the resiliency of children and families. We aim to increase the number and strength of protective factors and reduce the impact of potential risk factors for our clients.
Taos Behavioral Health has the largest licensed and credentialed behavioral health staff in northern New Mexico. We can be reached at www.taosbehavioralhealth.org, 105 Bertha in Taos for scheduled appointments and at 575-758-4297.
Dr. Harold Perl is a Clinical/Community Psychologist living in Des Montes and Co-Chair of the TBH Board.
Information in this series is taken from the National Institutes of Health Guide, “Principles of Substance Abuse Prevention for EarlyChildhood.” (drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-substance-abuse-prevention-early-childhood/).