The novel research, funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, could improve the well-being of thousands of families in this growing yet underserved population.
“We want to better understand how stress affects daily parent-child interactions, and how that influences a child’s physical and mental health and school readiness,” said Leah Hibel, an associate professor with the Department of Human Ecology who is leading the five-year experiment.
Hibel and her team are working with up to 250 families in the Sacramento area, periodically assessing stress hormones and charting participants’ emotions and behaviors.
“We are studying how financial pressures, marital challenges, discrimination and fear of deportation affect parents and their babies, as well as the factors that contribute to resilience.”
The stress factor
Parenting can be stressful—even more so when you lack support within your household and community. Stress can influence a parent’s capacity to help a child develop what researchers call self-regulation, which is the ability to control thoughts and feelings and manage upsets.
“Self-regulation is crucial for developing relationships, doing well in school, maintaining a job and accomplishing other goals,” Hibel said. “People with the ability to self-regulate have fewer physical and mental health problems, fewer arrests and higher socioeconomic status and income.”
Children usually learn self-regulation through healthy interactions with parents. But stressors like poverty and marital discord can undermine parenting and affect a child’s mental and physical health.
“Good self-regulation is especially critical for children living in high-stress environments because it helps them cope with and overcome adversity,” Hibel said.
Why Mexican-origin families?
The Latino population is growing throughout the nation, especially in California. Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California, comprising more than 50 percent of the population. People of Mexican origin make up 82 percent of the state’s Latino population.
Immigration has stayed fairly stable in the last two decades. The population increase is mostly due to the rise in births of children of Mexican descent. And yet, scientists know very little about the social and emotional development of Mexican-origin children.
“Mexican-origin children are disproportionately exposed to stressors like poverty, violence and discrimination,” Hibel said. “Deportations are on the rise. It’s important to understand the experiences that contribute to both stress and resilience in families of Mexican origin so we can tailor interventions to address their specific needs.”
A novel approach
To study parent-child relationships and development, researchers usually observe interactions in a lab setting or for short periods of time in the home. That approach can give researchers a sense of parenting styles, but doesn’t capture the dynamic nature of parenting.
“Parents continually change their emotions and behaviors to meet the fluctuating needs of their children,” Hibel said. “As author Gretchen Rubin says, ‘In parenting, the days are long and the years are short.’”
To chart the ups and downs, Hibel asks parents to respond to questions about their child’s emotions and behaviors, as well as their own, multiple times a day, over the course of two weeks, at four stages in their children’s lives—at 6 months, 18 months, 3 years and 4 years.
And since self-regulation has a biological component, researchers are also monitoring sleep patterns and measuring the stress hormone cortisol.
“Throughout the day, parents collect saliva on themselves and their children and the team assesses it for cortisol, which can indicate levels of stress in a person’s system,” Hibel said. “We can match diary entries with saliva samples to get a complete picture of parent and child self-regulation in real time. What were you doing at the time? What was your baby doing?”
Sleep, the wonder drug
The team is also looking at the quality and quantity of sleep. Children who don’t get enough sleep are vulnerable to emotional problems and cognitive delays. Likewise, low-income parents often work multiple jobs with nonstandard shifts and are also often sleep deprived.
“Sleep deprivation can compromise mental and physical health, so we measure the sleep of all family members,” Hibel explained.
Scientists have studied the role parental stress and poverty play in child development, but not with this same focus on the Mexican-origin experience.
“When it comes to stress and parenting, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” Hibel said. “We hope this research can help ensure all families receive the support they need.”
Diane Nelson, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Dean's Office, 530-752-1969, firstname.lastname@example.org
Leah Hibel, Department of Human Ecology, 919-360-3639, email@example.com