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Intergenerational Perspectives on Health Disparities

Good Relationships With Parents During Childhood as a Buffer to the Common Cold 

Children raised in families of low socioeconomic status (SES) are at higher risk of infectious and cardiovascular diseases throughout their lives, but better parent-child relationships may protect against these health disparities. In a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, IPR health psychologist Greg Miller and his colleagues test the hypothesis that a positive relationship with parents during childhood acts as a buffer against the increased susceptibility to infectious illness during adulthood, such as the common cold. The researchers examined 176 healthy adults ages 18­–55 who reported their childhood SES and the quality of their childhood relationships with their parents by rating parental care, love and support, lack of conflict, and family cohesiveness. Participants were exposed to an upper respiratory virus and monitored in quarantine for five days for signs of the common cold. Individuals raised in low-SES families were more likely to develop a cold. But this finding was only apparent for individuals who had poor quality relationships. In other words, having positive relationship with one’s parents acted as a “buffer” against the cold risks associated with lower childhood SES. Along with other studies from Miller’s group, these results suggest that positive family relationships can mitigate some of the health disparities associated with low childhood SES. Miller is Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology. 

Are Personality Traits Associated With Smoking and Alcohol Use During Pregnancy? 

Smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause harm to the developing fetus, but little is known about how personality affects the use of either substance while pregnant. In Plos One, IPR psychobiologist Emma Adam, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and IPR associate Ann Borders, psychologist and IPR associate Daniel Mroczek, and their colleagues, including former Northwestern postdoctoral fellow Magdalena Leszkostudy the connection between the two. They analyzed data from 2013–15 of a geographically and racially diverse sample of 603 pregnant women, 18 years and older.  The study included smoking and drinking habits before and during pregnancy, as well as information about personality traits based on the Five-Factor Inventory. Most women quit smoking or drinking after learning about the pregnancy, but 45% continued to smoke and 10% continued to drink during pregnancy. The most significant association the researchers found was that women who scored high on openness to experience on the personality inventory were considerably more likely to continue alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The researchers note that the findings can be used in the design of interventions to decrease maternal smoking and alcohol consumption. Adam is Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development and Social Policy.

The Impact of Responsive Parenting on Young Children

Studies show responsive parenting—when parents are nurturing and respond appropriately and regularly to their children's needs—is linked to positive psychosocial, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. Can it protect children of parents with PTSD from developing mental health symptoms? In Parenting: Science and Practice, developmental psychologist and IPR associate Lauren Wakschlag and her colleagues investigate whether responsive parenting can reduce the impact of mothers' PTSD symptoms on their children's depression, anxiety, disruptive behavior, and stress-related symptoms. The sample of the study included 242 mothers and their preschool-aged children from the NIMH funded MAPS study directed by Wakschlag. The families were multi-ethnic and stratified by poverty status. The study participants attended two lab visits, which included interviews and questionnaires about the mother's self-reported mental symptoms, partner violence, and childhood maltreatment, and the researchers observed the mother-child interactions, some involving stressful tasks. Wakschlag and her colleagues found responsive parenting was significant for buffering against a child's disruptive behavior and stress-related symptoms. However, maternal responsive parenting did not significantly impact the child's depression and anxiety. The study underscores the importance of recognizing maternal mental health as a malleable risk factor for young children. Additionally, the researchers suggest addressing both the parent-child relationship and parental mental health within early childhood mental health treatment to help parents develop responsive parenting techniques.