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    How to apply attachment theory in family courts: The world’s leading experts weigh in

    The start of 2021 sees a major new contribution to family court practice by child development researchers. A 35-page “Consensus position based on the concerted body of attachment research” has been published, under the names of 70 leading attachment researchers. It is the most comprehensive statement ever produced on how attachment theory can be applied in family courts worldwide in the best interests of children. It also shows ways in which attachment theory is frequently misused.
    This summary highlights the key points in the statement, but family court professionals who wish to learn more about this important topic should read the document in full. References to page numbers are included in this summary to enable quick access to the more detailed account.
    The “best interests of the child” has become the fundamental consideration in family courts. The concept is included in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989): “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration (#3.1)” (p. 5).
    This article addresses four issues:
    The challenge of using attachment theory in family courts
    What is attachment theory?
    Three attachment principles for family court practice
    Eight pieces of advice for family courts
    1. The challenge of using attachment theory in family courts
    A fundamental difficulty applying attachment science in family courts is that the science and the courts start from very different places. The measures used in attachment research are accurate enough to produce average scores that predict patterns of future child development across groups, but they are not sensitive enough to be used as diagnostic tools for individual families, which is what courts need (p. 5). Correlations found in attachment science, while statistically significant, may not be substantial, and rarely provide the basis for making a prediction about one individual (p. 21). Even the more fine-grained attachment assessments have been designed and validated for standardized contexts and may not apply in highly charged situations common in family courts.

    “Family courts are under pressure to appear to base their decisions on evidence, and attachment theory has become by far the most popular theory among professionals working with children and families.”

    Therefore, specific measures of attachment quality should be used with great caution. They may play a part, but only in combination with other assessments. Other measures include the child’s physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development, and very importantly, the capacity of a parent to provide care or be helped to develop caring skills. Above all, it is crucial to assess risk of harm to the child. Every one of these factors is hard to assess, not least because each can change over time, particularly if the assessment is made at a moment of heightened trauma and change (pp. 15-16, 20-21, 30-32).
    Family courts are under pressure to appear to base their decisions on evidence, and attachment theory has become by far the most popular theory among professionals working with children and families. This creates an environment in which over-confidence about the application of attachment classifications or concepts to individual cases is common (p. 21). Because of the complexity of cases in family courts, proceedings can be influenced by personal opinions or cultural and social values and norms (pp. 5, 6, 32).
    2. What is attachment theory?
    2.1 Defining attachment
    The 70 attachment researchers who contributed to the statement defined attachment this way:
    Attachment refers to an affectional bond in which an individual is motivated to seek and maintain proximity to, and comfort from, particular familiar persons (Bowlby, 1969/1982). Children are born with a predisposition to develop this motivation in relation to significant others (“attachment figures”) who have been sufficiently present and responsive. For children, these persons are usually their caregivers. The motivation is held to be governed by an attachment behavioral system. This system seeks to maintain a certain degree of proximity between child and attachment figures, with the setting for desirable level changing dynamically in response to internal and external cues. The motivation to increase proximity is activated when a person is alarmed by internal cues (e.g. pain, illness) and/or external cues (e.g. fear-evoking stimuli, separation), and manifests in a tendency to seek the availability of an attachment figure. When the attachment system is strongly activated, some kind of physical contact with an attachment figure is generally sought, especially by infants, though this contact can also be achieved by non-physical means later in development … Caregivers who have regularly interacted with and protect the infant when the infant has been alarmed usually come to be represented by the infant as someone he or she can turn to when in need (i.e. as a safe haven). Importantly, even the most sensitive and responsive of caregivers necessarily “tune out” from time to time – to visit the bathroom, make tea, or even temporarily hand over caregiving to another trusted person familiar to the infant, while the caregiver attends to other matters. Thus, that a caregiver provides a safe haven does not necessitate that this person is constantly accessible for the infant physically, or even psychologically, or that the child is securely attached to that caregiver. Conversely, being physically present does not necessarily mean that a caregiver is emotionally available (pp. 7-8).
    Photo: Yogendra Singh. Unsplash.

    2.2 Attachment quality is measured by secure/insecure, not strong/weak
    In attachment research, trained and certified coders measure the quality of attachment through standardized observation of children’s relative ability to use their caregiver as a safe haven to which they can turn for protection, and as a secure base from which they can explore the environment (p. 8).
    Secure attachment manifests itself in the child’s expectation that the adult will be available in times of need. Insecure attachment manifests itself in the child’s expectation that the adult will be relatively unavailable (p. 8).
    Insecure attachment is not weak and is extremely common and normal. Insecure attachment is an important strategy for children to maximize the potential availability of a caregiver who is unavailable or insensitive. An insecure attachment does not mean that the caregiver is never a safe haven for the child (pp. 10, 17).
    Insecure attachment is observed in three forms:
    Insecure-avoidant is when the child does not seek his or her familiar person when mildly alarmed, but remains near (p. 17).
    Insecure-resistant is when the child seeks proximity but is not readily comforted and can show anger toward the caregiver. Both this and insecure-avoidant behavior are termed organized insecure attachment because they are coherent and work to increase the availability of less sensitive carers (p. 17).
    Disorganized attachment is when the child is conflicted, confused, or apprehensive about a family caregiver in a situation of mild to moderate alarm. It is often associated with frightened, frightening, or dissociative behavior on the part of the caregiver, or a caregiver’s hostility, withdrawal, or maltreatment (p. 18).
    All these forms of insecure attachment correlate with later compromised child development, but even in the case of disorganized attachment, the associations are not strong enough to infer that observing insecure attachment foretells poor development outcomes for a specific child (p. 19).
    Furthermore, researchers observe patterns of attachment in carefully controlled conditions that involve only mild to moderate stress for a child. Family courts commonly deal with children in situations of intense stress. Disorganized behavior on the part of a seriously stressed child does not necessarily imply disorganized attachment (p. 19).

    “Specific measures of attachment quality should be used with great caution. They may play a part, but only in combination with other assessments.”

    2.3 Attachment disorder differs from insecure attachment
    The negative effects of insecure attachments, as presented earlier, are far surpassed by the potential damage of attachment disorder.
    Two types of attachment disorder have been defined. Reactive attachment disorder is when a child shows a lack of care-seeking toward any caregiver when alarmed. Disinhibited social engagement disorder is when a child is over-friendly with unfamiliar people.
    Reactive attachment disorder is seen in children who have experienced extremely inadequate caregiving in their early years, for example, those who have lived in institutions. The symptoms are reversible if the child is placed in a stable caregiving environment (p. 19).
    2.4 Children form attachments with multiple caregivers
    There is a widespread belief in the importance of one psychological parent, which emerges from the practice in some cultures of a single parent being the primary caregiver. A related idea has emerged: that an attachment with one person competes with other attachment relationships. Bowlby himself started with the idea of a single attachment in his 1969 book, but had changed his mind by the time he wrote his second book in 1984.
    The reality is that children form attachment relationships with multiple caregivers simultaneously if they have sufficient time with the caregivers and if the caregivers provide enough of a safe haven in times of need. For decades, the vast majority of attachment researchers have believed that children benefit from having more than one safe haven (p. 6, 11-12).
    The presence of multiple caregivers is the norm in many cultural settings across the world. Multiple caregivers and a network of attachment relationships constitute a protective factor in child development when caregiving is inconsistent (e.g., a caregiver is unwell or unavailable). This does not imply that the number of attachments is limitless, nor that a child may not prefer some caregivers over others. A child’s preferences are often shaped by the current accessibility of one carer over another and do not seem to depend on relative attachment quality with the caregivers. However, in the context of inter-parental conflict and custody disputes, less is known about how children’s preferences play out (p. 11-12).
    While all attachments with regular caregivers are important, researchers’ opinions differ about whether a most familiar carer should be afforded priority in the early years. Variations in context – such as cultural and family factors – might influence the organization of continuous contact with different caregivers (p. 12).

    “Insecure attachment is not weak and is very common – the average rate of insecure attachment in the general population is nearly half.”

    2.5 New attachments can form
    When a child and new caregiver spend sufficient time together, attachments usually form. The time together can activate not only the child’s attachment system but also a complementary caregiving system in the caregiver. Both are malleable. This is a relevant consideration in decisions about custody and overnight stays. However, no empirical research shows that overnight stays are a necessary condition for the development of an attachment relationship (p. 14).
    Photo: Alan Wat. Creative Commons.

    3. Three attachment principles for family court practice
    In their statement, the researchers present three principles for family court practice based on a full consideration of attachment research.
    Principle 1: A child needs to experience safe havens provided by particular, familiar, and non-abusive caregivers.
    Two considerations are key:
    Limited contact with a caregiver makes it more difficult for a child to form, enhance, and maintain expectations of that caregiver’s availability in times of need.
    Almost all non-abusive and non-neglecting family-based care is likely to be better than institutional care (p. 25).
    Principle 2: Safe, continuous, “good enough” care is in the child’s best interest and caregivers should be helped to provide it.
    A safe haven requires particular familiar relationships and sufficiently continuous interaction with these caregivers. Even if another caregiving environment may be better in some way than the child’s current one, continuity of good enough care constitutes part of a child’s best interests. Disrupting existing attachments in favor of an “optimal” solution should be pursued with extreme caution (pp. 25-26).
    Safe, continuous, good-enough care can be actively supported. Many studies and meta-analyses demonstrate effective interventions that improve caregiving quality. Many of these interventions are limited in time, typically lasting just 6 to 10 sessions (p. 26).
    To this end, it is important to assess a caregiver’s potential to provide good enough care with sufficient support, not just the caregiver’s actual caregiving. The assessment also needs to consider a future time, if a current extreme state of distress diminishes the caregiver’s current ability (e.g., fear of loss of custody). Also, any particular intervention does not suit every caregiver, so alternatives should be made available (p. 32).
    In families where roles were different prior to the separation, it is important to give the less experienced caregiver the opportunity to develop the ability to provide a safe haven (p. 12).
    Bowlby put it this way in 1951: “Just as children are absolutely dependent on their parents for sustenance, so … are parents … dependent on greater society for economic provision. If a community values its children it must cherish their parents” (p. 28).

    “The reality is that children form attachment relationships with multiple caregivers simultaneously.”

    Principle 3: Maintain a child’s existing safe havens if they don’t pose a threat.
    A decision to maintain a child’s existing safe havens does not provide a blueprint for allocating time in shared care arrangements. Time must be sufficient for attachment relationships to be developed and maintained (p. 28).
    This principle can also apply to foster care, where relationships with biological parents can be maintained during fostering. Similarly, relationships with foster carers can maintained after foster care (p. 29).
    In addition, grandparents, step-parents, siblings, and extended family members can often provide a safe haven for children (p. 29).
    Photo: Frank Mckenna. Unsplash.

    4. Eight pieces of advice for family courts
    1. Do not equate attachment quality with caregiver sensitivity.
    Caregiver sensitivity – the ability to notice a child’s signals, interpret them correctly, and respond to them appropriately and in a timely way – is, of course, important and correlates with attachment. However, gender norms can influence how care is expressed, and measures of safe haven and caregiver sensitivity may be shaped by gendered assumptions about caregiving (pp. 8-9). For example, sensitive caregiving in mothers predicts secure attachment more than it does in fathers, suggesting that other factors play a greater role in father-child attachment.
    2. Do not equate attachment quality with relationship quality.
    Relationships are made up of more than attachment alone. Other factors, such as basic physical care, play, supervision, teaching/learning, setting standards for conduct, and discipline, are also important (p. 9).
    3. Do not interpret one-off behaviors of children as reliably indicating attachment quality.
    Children’s behaviors depend on context. Attachment is measured in very controlled contexts. A very frightened child behaves differently than a less frightened child. A child in a highchair may cry in response to a threatening noise, but not cry if he or she is free to move to the caregiver. Children’s behaviors are also a function of their individual temperaments (p. 9).
    4. The Tender Years Doctrine is wrong.
    The Tender Years Doctrine holds that custody automatically goes to the mother for children under a certain “tender” age. While this concept has been formally replaced in most countries by standards related to the best interests of the child, it remains influential (p. 13). In Israel, it remains the policy: custody automatically goes to the mother for children under the age of six. The researchers state: “We are in full consensus that the ultimate establishment of a network of attachment relationships is generally a protective factor in the long term and thus a desirable outcome in child development. We are also in full agreement that losses of and permanent separations from attachment figure are in themselves risk factors that should be prevented wherever possible in child development.” (p.13)
    5. Overnight care with a second parent is not inherently harmful for children.
    In the 1990s, researchers concluded that co-parenting arrangements that included overnight visits to the co-parent were associated with insecurity in a child’s attachment with the resident parent (Solomon & George, 1999). However, the data presented in the study actually showed that parental conflict, not overnight stays, was  the problem. The inaccurate conclusion of this study has been quoted frequently to defend a position that is not supported by this or other evidence (p. 13).
    The key question regarding decisions about overnight stays is whether the child experiences a safe haven with each caregiver. Of course, having a secure attachment does not preclude a child being unsettled for a time by unfamiliarity with, say, a new home. Also, the application of Principle 2 (safe, continuous, “good enough” care is in the child’s best interest and caregivers should be helped to provide it) requires attention to actively enabling the caregiver to develop a safe haven over time (p. 14).

    “It is important to assess a caregiver’s potential to provide good enough care with sufficient support, not just the caregiver’s actual caregiving.”

    6. Addressing and reducing conflict is key.
    Inter-parental conflict and hostility undermine a parent’s own caring competencies and ability to let the other parent provide care. Interventions to reduce parental conflict are important (pp. 14-15).
    If courts are clear about their decisions regarding custody and time allocation, they can increase parents’ capacity to overcome conflict. Similarly, if courts are clear about their commitment to the three principles outlined earlier, caregivers’ anxiety can be reduced and their motivation for cooperation increased (p. 33).
    7. Ensure that family court professionals are adequately trained in attachment assessment.
    While attachment theory is typically a mandatory part of professionals’ training, specialist training in assessing attachment quality is not. This can lead to attachment theory being either under-estimated or used with over-confidence. If assessments of attachment are used, they must be performed by formally trained observers (pp. 23, 31).
    8. Take evidence directly from experts, not via representing parties.
    Appeals to attachment in family courts would be less partial, more balanced, and more aligned with convergent evidence if courts called in experts, rather than the representing parties (p. 23).
    Header photo: Extra Medium. Creative Commons.  More

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    Ending the practice of spanking young children may require more individualized, belief-based dialogue with parents

    Near-scientific consensus that physical punishment is damaging to children has led to interest in how to educate parents about its potential harms. Efforts to reduce parents’ use of physical punishment, often called spanking, with young children through on-line education are likely to succeed only if they directly address parents’ beliefs.
    This is what we learned from an experiment we undertook to examine how parents who approve of physical punishment remain committed to spanking even after being shown scientific evidence linking the practice to many negative outcomes for children, including aggression and mental health issues. The study, of parents of 2- to 8-year-olds from 41 U.S. states, was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
    Discomfort makes parents mistrust science
    In our study, parents were given written scientific evidence about spanking in the form of an on-line news article, which included quotes from an expert on physical punishment. They also received written opinions from lay commentators who advocated for physical punishment. Parents who approved of physical punishment rated experts as less trustworthy than lay commentators, thereby avoiding the psychological challenge and discomfort – often called cognitive dissonance — that occurs when beliefs contradict scientific evidence. They may do this by questioning the trustworthiness of the science and preferring alternative perspectives that fit their views.

    “Parents do not discount all science related to parenting, just science that conflicts the views they hold.”

    However, in our study, parents who approved of physical punishment were not anti-science in principle. Their distrust of science was specific to this topic. For example, parents had no trouble valuing messages from experts on a neutral topic — the importance of car seats for children — even when they had discounted the expert on physical punishment. These findings suggest that parents do not discount all science related to parenting, just science that conflicts the views they hold.
    Photo: Average Joe. Creative Commons.

    Findings suggest more workable approaches
    The Internet has become a leading source of information for parents around the world. Our study helps us understand why efforts to significantly reduce spanking by disseminating information on-line about the dangers of physically punishing children may prove difficult without directly addressing common misperceptions about physical punishment. First, the on-line world makes it very easy for users to avoid information that contradicts what they already believe. Second, it gives users competing lay and pseudo-scientific commentary that can confirm existing views in what are often referred to as echo chambers.
    The good news is that parents who approve of physical punishment don’t distrust science per se — they are generally open to scientific findings, as the comparison involving child car seats showed. However, it is easy for parents to discount scientific findings when they can easily find others on-line who validate their support for practices such as physical punishment.
    Paediatricians can be influential
    Given the challenges of on-line parent education, a more productive way to educate parents about the harms of physical punishment may be to do so through experts they already trust, such as their children’s pediatricians. Pediatricians are widely trusted by parents. In the United States and Canada, they are encouraged to offer anticipatory guidance – a type of proactive counselling on childrearing topics such as children wearing bicycle helmets and ensuring that guns are stored safely — even if parents don’t raise the issue. The risks of physical punishment should be a subject that is frequently discussed with parents, along with suggestions for disciplinary methods to use instead of physical punishment. Pediatricians say the best time to discuss this is when children are infants so parents can reflect on the options available long before their children misbehave. However, pediatricians are not always trained for the task and may need advice on how best to raise these issues and participate in these discussions.
    Beliefs underpin parental resistance to science
    At some level, most parents who physically punish their young children believe in the practice. Some use this kind of punishment because their parents used it on them and they believe it worked. Some see it is as a last resort, when parents feel they have no other option. They may feel they need spanking in their toolbox to drive their message home on occasion. Simply telling parents not to hit their children without providing a realistic and credible toolbox of alternatives is unlikely to win over converts. Experts may seem to be taking away parents’ last resort without offering them something they know will work in what can be a stressful situation. Also, if experts offer parents alternatives that seem too difficult or time consuming, parents may display solution aversion: When a solution is regarded as unworkable or too scary, people recoil from it and stick with what they know.
    Tempting though it may be to simply rely on making scientific evidence about physical punishment widely available, to have a wider impact, we need more individualized approaches that address parents’ beliefs. Resistant parents are not intrinsically anti-science. But on the issue of spanking, they need workable options other than physical punishment. When the going gets tough, they need something they can really believe in.
    Header photo: Guian Bolisay. Creative Commons.  More

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    Poverty generates strengths and rational decisions, not just damage

    Is adolescent parenthood amid poverty always poorly thought out – the irrational miscalculation of youthful short-sightedness? It depends. Some studies of teenage parenting show worse outcomes for both mothers and children, but others indicate better outcomes, once social disadvantages are accounted for. Starting a family early may make sense, even in the long term. To understand why, we should step down from our ivory towers and into the shoes of people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are making these decisions.
    Damaging decisions can be rational
    A disadvantaged young woman –  like her relatives – can expect a shorter, unhealthier life than a more affluent young woman. Her unconscious calculations, formed under the effects of poverty, might also vary from her better-off contemporaries. For example, decisions about whether to delay pregnancy for further education might involve a different cost-benefit matrix for a low-income woman than for someone who has more resources. If she waits, then her parents – their health probably already declining under the chronic stress of poverty — might be unable to help her raise the kids. She’ll want those children to reach adulthood before her parents’ advancing health issues compete for her attention. When is a good time to begin a family if a woman wants to be well at least until her oldest grandchild is five? Answers to this question have anticipated childbearing choices across socioeconomic groups; they have also accurately predicted an eight-year gap between the first birth for an average woman and for women living in poverty. Therefore, an early start can be rational, given the circumstances.
    This example begins to show why we need well-rounded ways to capture the diverse impacts of living in poverty. For understandable reasons, a conventional deficit approach concentrates on the damage that disadvantage causes for long-term physical and mental health. But this focus can be too narrow. It may not recognize that some actions –  irrational within privileged contexts –  are reasonable for someone in poverty, even if these actions might also harm health and well-being.
    “Hidden talents” spring from poverty
    Focusing solely on damage caused by living in poverty can also obscure mental strengths – what are called “hidden talents” – developed by the experience. For example, adversity may enhance abilities to address challenges relevant to disadvantaged environments. People may develop specific abilities to deal with harsh and unpredictable situations where threat looms large and potential rewards are sparse and short-lived.

    “We should step down from our ivory towers and into the shoes of people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are making decisions.”

    Cognitive tests of young British homeless people showed that, predictably, they performed less well on many activities than did peers from more affluent backgrounds. The deficit process – linked to sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, chronic stress or neglect –  damaged their performance on most tests. However, on the creativity test, the homeless scored on par with others. Surviving on the streets may put a premium on creativity –  being able to solve problems imaginatively – leading to homeless people scoring within the typical range.
    Research has revealed other allied skills. Studies by Seth Pollak at the University of Wisconsin-Madison show that people who have been physically abused may develop an enhanced ability to detect threat. This can help them spot danger early and avoid it.
    Other studies suggest that, in unpredictable circumstances, it is valuable to be able to shift attention  and form memories quickly and efficiently. Cognitive studies show that people who have recently experienced violence may do as well as – or even better than – people who have not experienced violence on tests of remembering information relevant to social dominance. However, such findings are difficult to accommodate if we rely solely on a deficit model that highlights the undoubtedly widespread damage that poverty and adversity can inflict on brain and body.
    A “strengths-based” model complements the deficit approach
    An approach that combines the deficit model with models of reasoned responses and hidden talents is vital for many reasons. It can help fine tune policy and interventions. It can encourage the development of learning and work environments that capitalize on strengths that arise from adversity. It can help explain apparently anomalous research findings where enhanced performance among people in poverty might otherwise be dismissed as a fluke or mistake. Finally, it challenges researchers, who typically come from privileged backgrounds and who may overlook strengths developed through poverty: A broader, more complex model makes us question our assumptions of what is “normal.”
    In terms of policy interventions, a broader model might make parenting programs more effective. In general, authoritative parenting is regarded as the gold standard. Characterized by high demands and high responsiveness, and by giving children choices and flexibility, this approach is believed to secure the best academic and mental health outcomes for children. Experts advocate it and prefer it to authoritarian parenting styles that brook no discussion or dissent.
    Better parenting programs
     But maybe parenting that provides children with choices and flexibility is not always the most rational or even effective approach to raising children. African American children typically face a much harsher reality than affluent White contemporaries whose parents are more likely to favor an authoritative, more liberal style. African American children are much more at risk if they make a single mistake — such as saying something a police officer dislikes, shoplifting once, or misbehaving in ways a teacher finds threatening; when done by a White child, these actions might be dismissed or explained as exploring boundaries. The costs to African American children of slipping up – involvement in the judicial system and tougher punishment – are high. This helps explain why some African American parents are harsher and more authoritarian. Are they making a mistake? It’s unclear: There is some evidence that children who experience strict, no-discussion, but non-abusive upbringings have better outcomes in these contexts than more permissive parenting.

    “A broader model might make parenting programs more effective … Educational practice also could gain insights.”

    Perhaps advocates of a simple deficit approach should get closer to the realities of disadvantaged lives and gain a broadened perspective. For example, it is tempting to conclude that hypervigilant behavior — checking for potential dangers – developed in an abusive childhood offers no benefit and only damage as a working model for a more typical adult life. But this may ignore an asymmetry in the costs of trusting someone you cannot trust compared with trusting someone who can be trusted. Erring on the side of caution may be reasonable, and not merely a mark of impairment caused by stressful early experiences that we should work to reverse.
    Social workers recognize such subtleties. Such behavior makes sense to them and matches their experiences. They see that it can be reasonable (if damaging and not desirable) for young people who are raised in adversity to use aggression to acquire social status or to engage in delinquent behavior to secure resources when they are deprived of opportunities. In contrast, developmental scientists who study youth behavior are often not focused sufficiently on the context; they may concentrate more on the shortcomings of the individual and on interventions that can improve that person’s outcomes.
    Insights into the impact of poverty on learning 
    Educational practice could gain insights and accrue benefits from broadening the deficit approach. Studies suggest that adversity impairs a variety of cognitive abilities. However, research also suggests that, in some conditions, adversity may improve abilities to switch between tasks. Particularly in stressful settings, this skill seems to come to the surface, whereas it may not be apparent in neutral settings.
    Working memory – keeping track of changes in the environment – also seems to be enhanced by some experiences of adversity. These hidden talents could help inform the design of learning environments where the optimal set-up for a disadvantaged child might differ from that for a more affluent peer.
    These insights might also help us design more equitable testing environments for children. Exams with problems that require hours of focused activity may be harder for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are used to more dynamic situations where their attention is more distributed. Pencil-and-paper problems might be harder than hands-on calculations. Problems about money – a pressing need for children from low-income families – might be more difficult than more abstract problems. We should recognize that children in poverty or from working-class backgrounds may be skilled at – and particularly benefit from – solving problems collaboratively.
    No one believes that poverty is good. The damage it causes far outweighs any marginal benefits. However, a strengths-based approach, combined with a better understanding of reasonable behavior, can complement the perspectives and tools already available to us, even if this approach comes with its own set of challenges. This endeavor can help us understand how contexts of adversity shape people’s strengths and weaknesses. It may swing the pendulum more toward intervening to improve those contexts and away from simply trying to change the individuals who live in them.
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    Pandemic shows children’s well-being depends on parents staying in good mental shape

    The mental health of stressed young people was transformed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: Many felt better. Anxiety and symptoms of depression dropped among older, high-achieving children in the United States. That was particularly true for students about to graduate from high school, our research in U.S. schools has found.
    Why? Children relaxed … for a bit. COVID-19 provided a full stop to the busyness of some teenage lives. The treadmill of pressure, activities, and commitments halted. Out went crisscrossing among band practice, sports clubs, social activities, and hours of homework into the small hours. Lockdowns brought that high-octane life to a sudden standstill.
    Children got more sleep – they weren’t leaving home at 7 am. Many schools had staggered hours and reduced the pressure, shifting from grading assignments to awarding a pass or fail. Social anxiety was reduced – a teenager didn’t need to worry about being left out of the lunch table or not being invited to parties that no longer happened. Missing out on a romantic relationship didn’t matter as much – kids were not seeing seemingly happy couples at school or at social gatherings.
    But this break didn’t last. As we worked with schools through the arrival of summer, we found that anxiety and depression had risen again among older high school students. Their initial relief morphed into feeling that life was unsettling, scary, and lonely — young people experienced grief about incomplete endings and fears about what might lie ahead.

    “Anxiety and depression dropped initially for older, high-achieving children in the United States.”

    Middle school children less relieved
    Children in middle school did not have even the initial relief – in our survey, anxiety and depression stayed at previous levels for them. That’s probably because virtual communication is more challenging for children of this age. Their peer groups are less well formed and less stable than those of 16- to 18-year-olds. If you are an awkward, insecure 12-year-old with few social connections, it can be easier to casually share confidences with friends at soccer practice or while walking around than to do so from home via Zoom. Self-consciousness kicks in: “Will they like my room?” “Will they see my family?”
    We’ve learned a lot about what helps children of all ages feel good in a period characterized by prolonged uncertainty, with no end in sight. Two predictors of their well-being stand out: the well-being of parents and the supportiveness of teachers.
    Photo: kris krüg. Creative Commons.

    Parents and teachers vital for resilience
    First, we found strong, unique links between adolescents’ depression and anxiety and whether they felt their parents were coping well. When children felt their parents maintained a calm, stable home and were in good enough shape to provide emotional support, they were likely to be doing well. This was true across ages, genders, and races. Our finding is in sync with a major report published last year on children’s well-being by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Its take-home message: If you want children to do well, the single most important step is to ensure that the parents are doing well themselves.

    “When children felt their parents maintained a calm, stable home and were in good enough shape to provide emotional support, they were likely to be doing well.”

    Second, our research found that the support of key adults – and teachers in particular – was vital to children in maintaining their well-being. In open-ended questions on what was going well in their schools, children and youth responded most often with answers such as, “My teacher cares about me and reaches out to me,” and ‘I really like that my teachers check in on how I’m feeling and not just my school work.”
    Parents need proper care 
    These two observations should inform practice and policy. The first highlights that we need to expand the focus of policy and practice beyond just styles of parenting. Children’s well-being depends not simply on quality of care but is linked directly to parents’ own well-being. During the pandemic, adults – just like children – also require love, gentleness, comfort, and stability. This helps the adults ensure that their children feel well looked after.
    “Burned out” teachers need help, too
    Teachers’ welfare is also important, not just for its own sake, but also because these adults provide valuable care and support for students. During the pandemic, we surveyed U.S. teachers’ well-being. Stress rates stayed steady, but clinically significant burnout has risen sharply among educators since March 2020. The risk factors seem to be lack of clarity about what they are required to do and blurry boundaries between work and recreation. These findings reflect how many teachers have worked long hours and had few breaks over the summer. Their needs should also be supported, especially if they are to play their role in bolstering children’s resilience.
    Which aspects of home life were most helpful?
    Our research about children during the COVID-19 pandemic identified three factors, , that reliably predicted anxiety and depression in children. By far the most important was having a low-quality relationship with parents. Following this was lack of structure to the day (separating time for leisure or fun), and high levels of distraction or inability to focus on schoolwork.
    Parents and schools can help address each of these factors. For parents, the challenge in these very difficult circumstances is to stay well themselves. Stress levels have risen for all and it is important that parents share their burdens with others and, where necessary – and if they can – seek professional help.
    Manage technology, expectations, and assignments
    For schools, an important task is to support their teachers well. Professional development programs must address directly the psychological burdens educators take on as they support their students through the pandemic. For students, schools should ensure that their days are well-structured and that lessons are not too long. Online technology should be streamlined so children are not juggling between different platforms. Educators should scale back expectations and focus on the core skills children need, letting go of much of the rest. Teachers should coordinate with other teachers when making assignments and scheduling due dates. It doesn’t take much figuring out to ensure, for example, that Monday is science homework day, Tuesday is math homework day, and so on. This helps children have a predictable and manageable week.
    None of us should forget, if life begins to return to how it once was, that there was something wrong with the overly busy schedules of many children’s lives. The figures for serious anxiety and depression tell the story. COVID-19 has brought its own problems, but the temporary sense of relaxation it has offered some children shows that life was not that healthy beforehand. Children deserve better than the old normal.
    Header photo: Unsplash.  More

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