Recent Child, Adolescent and Family Studies Research


Childhood Programs and Development

Two-Generation Initiative Expands Study
Northwestern’s Two-Generation Research Initiative has received a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to study the expansion of CareerAdvance®, a program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that combines quality early learning for preschoolers with career training in the healthcare field for their low-income parents. Teresa Eckrich Sommer, IPR research associate professor, is leading the project with IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and developmental psychologist and IPR associate Terri Sabol. Building on six years of research, they will examine the short- and long-term impacts of a scaled-up version of the program on parents’ and children’s education outcomes, as well as on parents’ career success. They will also seek to discover why these impacts occur, assessing possible explanations such as changes in parents’ and children’s academic and career identities, increased language stimulation at home, and strategies for coping with the competing demands of family, school, and work. Chase-Lansdale is Frances Willard Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and Associate Provost for Faculty.

Lindsay Chase-Lansdale
IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-
Lansdale presents her work on two-generation
programs, which seek to improve the lives of 
children and parents, at IPR's policy research
briefing, "Ready for School, Ready for Life" in
Washington, D.C., on May 17.

Improving Head Start Attendance
Head Start, the largest federally funded U.S. early childhood education program for low-income children, aims for minimum monthly attendance rates of 85 percent. Chase-Lansdale, Sommer, Sabol, and Harvard's Mario Small are conducting a randomized controlled trial, with support from Ascend at the Aspen Institute, to evaluate a low-cost intervention that promotes parents' social networks. Children in one group are assigned to classes based on the neighborhood they live in, while a second group also offers parents the opportunity to form partnerships to support their children’s attendance. The intervention does not affect average yearly attendance, but it increases attendance in winter, when average attendance is lowest. Focus group analyses suggest that parents’ levels of connection and trust and commitment to their children’s education might be factors linked to expanded social capital for parents and improved attendance for children.

Disparities in Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding rates vary among racial and ethnic groups in the United States. To better understand these disparities, Chase-Lansdale and her colleagues, including former IPR graduate research assistant Chelsea McKinney and IPR adjunct faculty Madeleine Shalowitz, both of NorthShore University HealthSystem, analyze data from the Community and Child Health Research Network, examining which mothers start breastfeeding and for how long. Spanish-speaking Hispanic mothers are most likely to begin and continue breastfeeding, followed by English-speaking Hispanic mothers. African-American mothers are least likely to begin breastfeeding, and only breastfeed for 6.4 weeks on average, compared with 17.1 weeks for Spanish-speaking Hispanic women. The researchers explain in Pediatrics that in-hospital formula feeding can partially explain gaps between racial and ethnic groups’ breastfeeding rates. They call for hospitals to limit in-hospital formula feeding and consider family history of breastfeeding to reduce these disparities.

Preterm Infants’ Development
Preterm babies tend to encounter both health and cognitive obstacles, but a study by IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman shows a robust early link between language and cognition in preterm infants. In Developmental Science, Waxman and her colleagues compare preterm and full-term infants to identify when they begin to link language with how they categorize objects. Waxman’s previous work has shown that by three months, infants successfully form object categories, which is considered a building block of cognition. Infants also exhibit a developmental shift around this age: At three months, they look longer at a familiar object, but from four months on, they look longer at a novel object. The new study reveals this same shift in healthy preterm infants. Moreover, this developmental shift unfolds on the same maturational timetable as in full-term infants, so infants who were conceived at the same time develop along the same schedule, even if one is born a month earlier. The results show preterm infants, overall a vulnerable population, begin life with a strong foundation for linking language and meaning. Waxman holds the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology.

Sandra Waxman
IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman 
questions Johns Hopkins sociologist
Andrew Cherlin about his work on the
origins of discontent in the white
working class.

Linking Language to Meaning
Over the first year of life, infants tune into the signals of their native language and begin to link sounds to meaning. Waxman and Northwestern University graduate student Brock Ferguson examine whether infants, like adults, can infer the communicative function of otherwise arbitrary signals, such as tone sequences, and link them to meaning as well. In Cognition, they assess 6-month-olds’ object categorization with videos in which two people hold a conversation—one speaking in English and the other responding in beep sounds. When the beep sounds are embedded in this rich social exchange, infants interpret them as if they are language. The results reveal a remarkable flexibility in 6-month-old infants in identifying which signals in the ambient environment are communicative and in linking these signals to core cognitive capacities such as categorization.

Touchscreens and Young Children
Touchscreen devices like smartphones and tablets are now ubiquitous for American children, permitting even very young children to engage interactively in an intuitive manner with actions as simple as touching and swiping. However, little is known about the role these devices play in very young children’s lives or their impact on early learning and development. In Frontiers in Psychology, Waxman and Northwestern University’s Silvia Lovato focus on two areas that can be informed by existing research among children under the age of 3, for whom evidence remains sparse. The first measures transfer of learning, or how well children use information learned from screens to reason about events off screen. The second measures the impact of interactive screens on parent-child interactions and story comprehension during reading time. The two conclude more research is needed to clarify the pedagogical potential and pitfalls of touchscreens for infants and very young children. They call for research on the capabilities unique to touchscreens and on the social and cultural contexts in which young children use them.

Effects of School, Life, and Family Contexts

Stress and Testing
How do children respond biologically to the stress of standardized testing? IPR psychobiologist Emma Adam and her collaborators, including IPR Director David Figlio, an education economist, and IPR graduate research assistant Jennifer Heissel, are examining whether children’s stress hormone levels are elevated during periods of high-stakes standardized testing, versus periods without testing or with medium-stakes testing. In the study supported by the Spencer Foundation, the researchers are also assessing whether stressors outside of school, such as worries about neighborhood safety, affect children’s stress hormones. Additionally, the researchers plan to test whether stress hormone levels can predict students’ academic performance and emotional well-being. In initial results, students’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol are elevated in anticipation of standardized tests, including both internal school testing and statewide testing. Third graders taking their very first standardized tests show particularly notable elevations. Students in sixth through eighth grades also register elevated stress hormone levels across the full day of testing during high-stakes exams. Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and of Economics.

Stress and Educational Disparities
Schools, teacher quality, and family income all play a role in student success, but these factors do not fully explain academic differences in the United States between whites and disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities, including African-Americans and Hispanics. The psychological stress associated with perceptions of discrimination might help explain this gap, according to a new theoretical model proposed by Adam, Heissel, IPR adjunct faculty Jennifer Richeson, and former Northwestern graduate student Dorainne Levy, now a postdoctoral scholar at Indiana University. In American Psychologist, the researchers review previous studies suggesting that African-Americans and Hispanics experience more stress because of their race, as well as studies indicating alterations in their physical expression of stress when compared with whites, including differences in sleep duration and quality. Prior research by Adam, for example, has found that everyday feelings of discrimination can throw off the body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The researchers argue that understanding the origin of disparities in educational outcomes, such as those resulting from discrimination and stress, is key to reducing them.

Emma Adam
IPR developmental psychobiologist
Emma Adam explains her research
on the connection between 
discrimination and chronic stress
among racial and ethnic minorities.

Increasing Teens’ Hours of Sleep
Not getting enough sleep can be a problem for teens, whose bodies are wired to stay up later and sleep late. This tendency can lead to falling grades and other trouble at school. In a pilot study funded by an IPR seed grant, Adam randomly assigns high school students to either a control group or to a text message-based intervention aimed at getting teens to bed earlier to increase their overall hours of sleep on school nights. The text messages provide nightly target bedtimes, personalized to participants’ previous sleep-wake schedules. This intervention is associated with significantly more sleep for white students, but not for racial and ethnic minorities. These minority students might face barriers to increasing their sleep hours that sleep intervention researchers should identify and target, Adam concludes.

Women’s Education and the Labor Force
Female labor-force participation has been rising in developing countries over the past 30 years, while gender gaps in schools have been narrowing. What do these changes mean for the lives of women? In an IPR working paper, IPR economist Seema Jayachandran and Rachel Heath of the University of Washington discover a relationship between the two phenomena: As increases in education prompt more women to enter the labor force, improved labor-market opportunities also prompt increases in their education. The researchers note that both education and labor-force participation benefit women and achieve policy-relevant goals. For example, both delay fertility and lead to healthier children once a woman does conceive. Jayachandran and Heath call for more research to help in designing policies that allow women and society at large to enjoy the benefits of increased job opportunities while minimizing the potential costs.

Fertility Decline and the Sex Ratio
The desire for smaller families is believed to be one reason why some countries undergoing economic development have more males than females in their population than they should statistically. Wanting a smaller family could increase the use of sex-selective abortion in cultures that greatly value having at least one son. Jayachandran quantifies the relationship between desired fertility and the male-to-female sex ratio, focusing on India. As family size falls, she finds, a couple’s desire to have a son over a daughter increases. For example, in the hypothetical situation of having only one child, about 85 percent of participants express a desire to have a son, while if they had two children, just 12 percent wanted both to be boys. In larger families, parents might desire daughters because they can help care for siblings and perform household chores, Jayachandran hypothesizes. She also discovers the fertility decline can explain 30–50 percent of the increase in India’s sex ratio over the past 30 years. The results suggest that policies to encourage lower fertility and smaller families have the unintended consequence of worsening the male-to-female ratio. The economic progress causing families to want fewer children, such as greater job opportunities for women, might also be contributing to the prevalence of sex-selective abortions.

Changing Gender Attitudes in India
Jayachandran is also examining gender-discriminatory attitudes among adolescents in India. She is assessing an intervention aimed at eliminating these attitudes in 314 secondary schools in the Indian state of Haryana, which has one of the most skewed sex ratios in the world, with 914 females per 1,000 males. Half of the schools in the study were randomly assigned to receive the two-year intervention, in which staff of a human rights nongovernmental organization facilitated classroom discussions about gender equality. The researchers hypothesize that by getting adolescents to think about and discuss the human rights and economic rationales for treating women equally to men, the intervention will decrease gender-biased attitudes and therefore change behavior. Jayachandran and her colleagues are currently conducting a survey to determine whether the intervention successfully altered attitudes. They also plan to survey the participants once they become adults to examine if the program increased women’s educational attainment and decreased sex-selective abortions.

Family Characteristics and Social Inequality

Predicting Very-Low Food Security
The percent of households with very-low food security in the United States has almost doubled over the last decade, making it critical to understand how this issue affects children’s long-term health and economic well-being. In the Southern Economic Journal, IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and her colleagues move beyond income measures to understand other causes of unmet needs of households with very-low food security. They determine that although households whose children have very-low food security are more likely to participate in various safety net programs, such as food stamps and housing assistance, nonetheless, they still struggle to meet their needs. The authors find that both physical and mental health issues in the head of the household are higher in households with very-low food security, suggesting that the types of issues facing households in extreme poverty often go unmeasured in standard economic data sets.

Food Marketing to Children Online
One initiative to combat U.S. childhood obesity involves restricting television advertising of unhealthy foods to youth. Since children are spending more time online, however, are companies marketing to them there? Communication studies researcher and IPR associate Ellen Wartella and her colleagues examine online advertising that targets children in Health Communication. They analyze about 100 websites for food and beverage brands, uncovering 15 child-oriented ones. As the 2013 dataset shows a decrease versus 2006, the researchers suggest self-regulatory measures and general public pressure might have caused food companies to remove some child-oriented online marketing in the United States. Among those that did have child-oriented websites, though, 13 included games, and many of these promoted particularly unhealthy products, such as Pop-Tarts and Butterfingers. Wartella and her colleagues recommend further research on these “advergames,” noting that with a stronger evidence base, advocates can call for more detailed policies regulating the use of gaming features. Wartella is the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication.

Pregnancy and the Great Recession
The Great Recession was associated with reduced fertility in the United States. But what was driving these reduced fertility rates? Using data from the 2006–10 National Survey of Family Growth, IPR social demographer Christine Percheski and Rachel Kimbro of Rice University exploit variation in state economic indicators to assess the impact of economic conditions on the likelihood of an intended pregnancy, an unplanned pregnancy, or no pregnancy for adult women without a college education. They find that, overall, worse economic conditions predicted a lower risk of an unplanned pregnancy. However, women’s odds of intentionally wanting to get pregnant varied by marital status. When economic conditions were poor, married women were less likely to want to get pregnant, but unmarried women living with a partner were more likely to have an intended pregnancy. Their findings suggest women responded to income constraints and general economic uncertainty by avoiding pregnancy during the Great Recession.

Health and Well-being Across the Lifecycle

Childhood Abuse and Premature Death
Childhood abuse has been linked to a variety of adult psychiatric problems, but research led by IPR health psychologist Edith Chen also uncovers a link between self-reported childhood abuse and an increased risk of dying younger in women. Together with IPR health psychologist Greg Miller and psychologist and IPR associate Daniel Mroczek, Chen links reports of physical and emotional abuse in childhood to mortality rates in adulthood for a national sample of more than 6,000 adults. The women who self-reported physical or emotional abuse by a parent had an increased risk of death over the 20-year follow-up period. Women who reported severe physical abuse, for example, had a 58 percent higher risk of death. In JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers suggest abuse can heighten vulnerability to psychiatric conditions, and children who experience abuse might develop negative health behaviors like drug use to cope with their stress. Another possible explanation might be that childhood adversities “program” the response tendencies of immune cells in ways that perpetuate inflammation, increasing a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease and other conditions. Chen and her colleagues also advise that women who report child abuse might need greater attention in interventions aimed at promoting health.

Exposure to Natural Disasters
A growing body of research has documented negative effects of exposure to natural disasters on fetal development. A working paper by IPR research associate Krzysztof Karbownik and Anthony Wray of Hitotsubashi University adds to this literature by linking World War I draft registration cards to the 1940 U.S. Census, as well as using records of hurricanes that struck the United States from 1885–99, to measure maternal stress when the study participants were in utero. They discover that in-utero exposure to a hurricane is associated with 7.5 percent lower income later in life, as well as decreased educational attainment. Karbownik and Wray explain that these costs to child development and productivity add to the growing concern about the impact of climate change and the ongoing growth of coastal populations.

Emotions and Physical Health
People who lose their temper during a fight with their spouse have an increased risk of cardiovascular problems like chest pain or high blood pressure later in life, according to a study in Emotion. Developmental psychologist and IPR associate Claudia Haase and her colleagues analyze 20 years of data, also finding that shutting down emotionally or “stonewalling” during marital conflict raises the risk of musculoskeletal issues such as a bad back. To track displays of anger, the researchers monitored 15-minute videotaped conversations between couples for behaviors like knitted brows and raised voices, while they also looked for facial stiffness, rigid neck muscles, and little or no eye contact to identify stonewalling behavior. This data was then linked to health symptoms, measured every five years over a 20-year span. The link between emotions and health outcomes was most pronounced for husbands, but some of the key correlations were also found in wives. The researchers conclude that people in unhappy marriages often have health problems, but that researchers have typically been unable to predict specific health outcomes. Their findings show that it is in fact possible to make specific predictions—based on just 15 minutes of observation.

Power in Relationships
People have social power when they can control or influence others’ desired outcomes, and they lack power when their needs and goals are dependent on the actions and preferences of others. Power dynamics are central to romantic relationships because people’s goals, desires, and happiness depend on their partner’s cooperation and investment. There are two types of power involved: relationship power—the general dependence and influence between romantic partners—and situational power—the power when people need to influence or depend on their partner for specific desired needs and goals. Social psychologist and IPR associate Eli Finkel examines the role of power in relationships in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Through five studies, he and his colleagues illustrate that low relationship power can produce aggressive responses, but only when men experience low situational power and feel they are unable to negotiate relationship interactions in ways that uphold masculine identities, such as when men are dependent on their partner for support. This suggests that the need to possess and demonstrate “manliness” represents a significant risk factor for psychological aggression in relationships. More broadly, the results demonstrate that to understand how power works in a romantic relationship, researchers must differentiate between relationship and situational power.