Friday, May 15, 2009

More Evidence: "People Who Get Screwed Have Screwed Up Kids"

We are developing a new narrative about poor kids and about kids whose parents have experienced trauma. (These are not the same groups, but the slippage is pretty easy in the way we think about them.) And this narrative says: Their problems are biological. It's inevitable.

Think how problematic this is:
Not only does poverty make you stupid, but if your mom had a rough life, you will likely be more hyperactive and have difficulty with social interaction.

Oh well. Screwed up parents have screwed up kids. Nothing we can do about it. . . .

We're only sure about rats, now. But it may not be long before we find it in kids. (As the authors note: "we should be prepared for analogous effects in humans.") In any case, the findings about rats will likely be plenty enough for many. (Poor kids. Rats. Hmm . . . Good comparison.)

This is reminiscent of the panic about "crack babies." Many teachers and others had many problems with the "crack babies" in their classrooms, etc. Except, of course, it turns out that there was no such thing as a "crack baby." They had real struggles with "crack babies," kids that really couldn't be helped. With the minor problem that they did not, in fact exist, except in the minds of those who believed in "crack babies."

All kinds of things are missing from the most recent findings about the impact of trauma on offspring.
1) Are the effects substantively significant as well as statistically significant. (In other words, not "are they real findings" but "are they real findings anyone should care about?")

2) Do the effects, if substantively significant, have a useful adaptive purpose? Do they actually bring benefits at the same time as they bring negatives? Are there strategies for helping kids find benefits of any differences that are substantive?

3) How many individuals have substantive effects that really matter? Is it a fairly small number of the individuals effected? If so, what are the dangers involved in applying this "label" to an entire "population"?

4) To the extent we agree that these biological tendencies cause issues in our world, what, specifically could buffer these effects?

5) To what extent are the kinds of social institutions we have (schools?) for low-income people magnify any potential negative impacts of these tendencies? (In other words, if middle-class kids are a little anxious does it matter? Do these tendencies only have substantive impact on kids who have to grow up in crappy environments? Is the real issue one of interaction, and not of biology alone?)

6) In crappy environments (e.g., many low-income schools) does the effect of the environment swamp any potential effects of these biological tendencies. In other words, even if there is a substantive effect, by the end of school would you notice much difference between kids who really were effected and those who weren't.

Interestingly enough, #6 would indicate that it is actually only in privileged kids that these effects really matter. Poor kids would end up just as anxious at the end, on average, no matter what. Only in kids in "good" environments would you be able to discern an impact in the long term.

By the time we actually get more information like this, it will be too late. The effect of this knowledge will have been felt: in the actions of teachers, social workers, and reverberating through our social institutions.

The impact of knowledge like this can be incredibly insidious.

From the article:
For the first time, a study of rats has shown that when a mother experiences some form of trauma even before her pregnancy begins, it will still influence her offspring's behavior.

And there are strong implications for humans, especially mothers who have experienced the effects of war, natural disasters or social upheaval.

"The findings show that trauma from a mother's past, which does not directly impact her pregnancy, will affect her offspring's emotional and social behavior. . . .

The researchers found that the offspring of stressed mothers exhibited less social contact, interacting infrequently with each other, compared with that of the control mothers' offspring. There were also important differences in behavior related to gender. The female rats showed more symptoms of anxiety, while the males exhibited less. And the rats whose mothers became pregnant immediately after being stressed were the most hyperactive, indicating that the time period in which adversity is experienced, relative to conception, is also important.

"Everyone knows that smoking harms the fetus and therefore a mother must not smoke during pregnancy," Leshem said. "The findings of the present study show that adversity from a mother's past, even well before her pregnancy, does affect her offspring, even when they are adult. We should be prepared for analogous effects in humans: For example, in children born to mothers who may have been exposed to war well before becoming pregnant."

Appendix: On Crack Babies
Throughout almost 20 years of research, none of us has identified a recognizable condition, syndrome or disorder that should be termed "crack baby." Some of our published research finds subtle effects of prenatal cocaine exposure in selected developmental domains, while other of our research publications do not. This is in contrast to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which has a narrow and specific set of criteria for diagnosis.

1 comment:

No Tobacco said...

We are born in a smoke free world and it is just right that we strive to offer our children the same kind of environment. Be involved and help empower everyone by taking part in the yearly WORLD NO TOBACCO DAY which will be on May 31st!