children’s health

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Understanding Aster: How Singing And Dancing Help Heal A Child’s Trauma

For the past four years, I’ve been involved with a local nonprofit, the North Cambridge Family Opera, which stages original productions featuring cast members age 7 to grandma, and with a range of abilities. In 2011, I wrote about how performing in the group’s opera helped children with autism. This year, I was struck by the story of how music helps heal the past trauma of one young cast member, 8-year-old Aster, adopted from Ethiopia after her birth parents died. I asked Aster’s mother to write a bit about their experience. Here’s her post:

By Marina Vyrros
Guest contributor

In the mid 1990s, I worked as a refugee aide in the Guatemalan rainforest.

Many people in that community — having fled horrific atrocities, like their villages being razed or worse — were suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Atrocities notwithstanding, a contingent of ranchero musicians somehow managed to lug homemade, oversized guitars to the camps and play music each night, often in the 100-degree heat.

While the NGO’s provided a valuable service — helping the people rebuild their external structures — the service that the ranchers provided, though perhaps less tangible, was invaluable. Their nightly gatherings, singing songs about their plight, helped the community to rebuild and heal internally.

Four years ago, when I adopted an almost 4-year old child from Ethiopia (who continues to recover from the trauma of having lost both birth parents during her formative, early childhood years) the lesson of the power of music was not lost on me.

Claudia M. Gold, a pediatrician, blogger and author of “Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child’s Eyes,” explains what may be going on in my daughter’s brain:

“Severe meltdowns are common in children who have experienced early trauma, at the time when the higher cortical centers of the brain were not yet fully developed. Stress of a seemingly minor nature can lead the rational brain to in a sense go ‘off-line.’ The child will have access only to the lower brain centers that function more instinctively.”

Especially during her first few years in Cambridge, Aster’s meltdowns were epic, but music and dance have consistently provided the most important vehicle to help her regulate her emotions.

Before, she might bang on the walls, now, to relieve her frustration, she pounds on a djembe, an African drum, in an afterschool program; instead of crying over seemingly inconsequential things, now, to release her emotions she invents and belts out Whitney Houston-y type songs, tears streaming down her face. To release her energy — which is abundant — she dances around. Everywhere. It all helps.

Recently, over the past five months, Aster’s been singing, dancing and even acting with the North Cambridge Family Opera based in Cambridge. In this year’s production, “Rain Dance,” she and the other animals living on the South African savannah elect a Machiavellian lion in a desperate attempt to end the local drought. Trouble ensues.

All kinds of research suggests that music can minimize the symptoms of post traumatic stress and other types of trauma. A 2011 study found that guitar-playing can help veterans with PTSD drown out the traumatic memories of bombs blasting; and in 2008 researchers found some reduction of post-traumatic stress symptoms following drumming, in particular “an increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness and intimacy, as well as achieving a non-intimidating access to traumatic memories, facilitating an outlet for rage and regaining a sense of self-control.”

Dr. Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child” writes that “children with behavioral issues don’t lack the will, they lack the skills.” Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today, Moms: For The Kids, Of Course

mikebaird/flickr

mikebaird/flickr

My 11-year-old daughter recently asked if she could take a hot yoga class with me. My first reaction was negative: it’s too hot, it’s not “fun” and it’s one of the few things I do that’s truly mine — 90 minutes in which I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s needs.

Of course, I said yes. And I’m glad I did. She made it through class, and was totally into it (though she wished there’d been more “tricks” and less pose-holding).

“That was great, Mom,” she said afterwards. “When’s the next class?” And whether she becomes a yoga fan or not, I consider those 90 minutes to be a small gift: another way for me to show her how strong and able a body can be, and how good it feels. It doesn’t much matter if it’s yoga or running or swimming or playing ultimate frisbee — our kids are clearly taking their physical activity cues from us.

A new study out of the U.K. confirms this: researchers report that physical activity levels in mothers and their pre-school kids are directly associated. The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, suggests that interventions to promote more physical activity among mothers (who, understandably, are often exhausted, harried and not great at fitting exercise into busy, kid-filled days) might also benefit their young children.

Here’s some of NPR’s report on the study of 554 mothers and their kids:

Mothers’ increased physical activity boosted children’s moderate and vigorous activity overall…

It’s not entirely clear whether it’s the mother’s activity that influences her child’s, or if mothers are more active because they’re busy keeping up with a playful child, says Esther van Sluijs, a behavioral epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and the study’s lead author.

But busy mothers don’t have to drop all other priorities to play with their children all day. Van Sluijs says just small changes – walking to the park instead of driving or playing a good game of tag instead of a board game – can make a difference. Continue reading

Doll Dangers: Girls Imagine Fewer Career Options After Playing With Barbies

Charles (dollstuff.net)/flickr

Charles (dollstuff.net)/flickr

I grew up in the era of Marlo Thomas’ Free To Be You And Me, with gender-liberated lyrics like this: “Some mommies are ranchers or poetry makers, or doctors or teachers or cleaners or bakers, some mommies drive taxis or sing on TV, yeah, mommies can be almost anything they want to be.”

Indeed, Barbie dolls — with their overly sexualized, crazy-making-body-image implications — had no place in our little Brooklyn apartment.

Apparently, that was a smart move.

A small, but novel new study exploring gender roles and how kids imagine their future careers found something disturbing: little girls who were asked about 10 different jobs told researchers that boys could take on “significantly more occupations” than they could themselves. What’s more, according to the study, girls who played with Barbie dolls before being interviewed indicated fewer career options compared to boys, while girls who played with the far less sexy Mrs. Potato Head reported a smaller difference between future job options as compared to boys. The jobs mentioned to the kids were: teacher, librarian, day care worker, flight attendant, nurse, construction worker, firefighter, pilot, doctor, and police officer

allieosmar/flickr

allieosmar/flickr

The study (which I’m now calling “Mrs. Potato Head Rules” but is actually titled “Boys Can Be Anything”: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions,”) involved 37 girls, ages 4-7. The research, led by Aurora M. Sherman, an associate professor in the School of Psychological Science Oregon State University with Sherman and Eileen L. Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, was published in the journal Sex Roles.

I asked Sherman via email how the project originated. She said that while there have been studies on what girls thought about fashion dolls like Barbie, there’d been “no actual experiments that could test whether playing with one kind of doll or another kind caused a difference in kids’ thinking.”

Sherman continued:

“I thought it would be interesting to test ideas girls have about careers as the outcome because there is a lot of emphasis on the 130+ careers Barbie has been dressed for, so it was logical to ask whether a Barbie costumed as a career professional (Dr. Barbie) would give girls a “boost” in their ideas about careers. However, that boost did not appear in my study…The lack of difference between Dr. Barbie and Fashion Barbie surprised me the most; it seems from our data that just a professional title and costume isn’t enough to expand the career horizons of girls when they play with Barbie.”

And while Sherman says she was interested in Barbie dolls as a child, “my parents didn’t allow them in my house. I didn’t have very many dolls of any kind as a kid, actually — my parents were more into providing games and books.” Continue reading

Study: Bullying Toll May Linger For Years, Leading To ‘Substantially’ Worse Health

(trix0r/flickr)

(trix0r/flickr)

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston report that children who have been bullied suffer not only the immediate blow of humiliation or worse, but that the toll of such childhood insults may linger for years — particularly if the bullying re-occurs — and lead to dramatically worse mental and physical health.

The negative impacts of chronic bullying may accumulate and snowball, researchers report, with ongoing bullying associated with greater depression symptoms in kids and lower self-worth over time.

From the study, “Peer Victimization in Fifth Grade and Health in Tenth Grade,” published in the journal Pediatrics:

We analyzed data from 4297 children surveyed at 3 time points (fifth, seventh, and tenth grades) in 3 cities. We used multivariable regressions to test longitudinal associations of bullying with mental and physical health by comparing youth who experienced bullying in both the past and present, experienced bullying in the present only, experienced bullying in the past only, or did not experience bullying.

RESULTS: Bullying was associated with worse mental and physical health, greater depression symptoms, and lower self-worth over time. Continue reading

Parents, Rejoice: Study Finds Messy Kids May Be Better Learners

B Kitty/flickr

B Kitty/flickr

Anyone with kids may recall those wild toddler “meals” in which the food went flying, ending up all over the floor, the furniture, you, your child’s face and body. The ratio of food offered to food actually ingested was grim.

It turns out there may be an unexpected upside to those epic messes (other than making fabulous holiday cards): new research suggests the messier infants and toddlers are at mealtime, the more they are learning.

Specifically, researchers suggest, learning vocabulary for new things is enhanced when toddlers are playing in a particularly happy place to be messy: the high-chair. A new study, led by Larissa Samuelson and her colleagues at the University of Iowa, shows that context matters for learning.

When 16-month-old infants sitting in a high-chair were presented with novel non-solid objects (such as, say, glue, oatmeal, or jelly), they were much better at then identifying something made of the same material compared to 16 month-olds sitting at a lab table. This was measured both in terms of their recalling names of the new objects (some example words were “dax” and “kiv”) and in distinguishing them from objects made of a different material but in a similar shape.

How could toddlers tell the difference between a jar of glue and a glass of milk? Well, not by just looking. The infants showed the best recognition of the objects they played with the most using their hands and mouths; gentle, non-messy touching didn’t help.

But perhaps the most significant finding is that the infants’ skills at identifying and naming these new objects was dependent on how messy the kids were outside the lab Continue reading

The Surprising Risk Of Swaddling Your Baby: Hip Troubles

Who knew swaddling your baby could be so risky? I loved swaddling my daughters, and they seemed to calm instantly as I tucked them up in soft flannel cloth, feeling (I imagined) safe, contained and protected.

But, like so many aspects of child-rearing, one wrong move can produce a major screwup. In this case, according to new research published in the journal Archives of Disease In Childhood, improper swaddling can lead to hip dysplasia. (The key to safe swaddling, experts say, is to allow the baby’s legs to bend, rather than wrapping them up with their legs tightly extended and pressed together.)

Infant swaddling has, historically, been a near-universal practice, researchers report, and in recent years it’s enjoyed a popular “resurgence.” Why? Because it genuinely appears to calm kids down with “its perceived palliative effect on excessive crying, colic and promoting sleep,” researchers write. “Approximately 90% of infants in North America are swaddled in the first few months of life.”

StarMama/flickr

StarMama/flickr

While the report found that swaddling did, indeed calm infants, it didn’t help much with colic.

WBUR and NPR’s Here & Now explored the topic today, quoting the study’s lead author — Nicholas Clarke, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Southampton University hospital in the U.K. — on how best to swaddle a baby:

‘Safe swaddling’ with appropriate devices should be promoted because it is recognised that traditional swaddling is a risk factor for DDH [developmental dysplasia of the hip]. In order to allow for healthy hip development, legs should be able to bend up and out at the hips. This position allows for natural development of the hip joints. The babies’ legs should not be tightly wrapped in extension and pressed together. Commercial products for swaddling should have a loose pouch or sack for the babies’ legs and feet, allowing plenty of hip movement and hip flexion and abduction.

Your Brain On Poverty: Low-Income Childhood Linked To Smaller Brain

Young children living in poverty appear to have smaller brain volumes in critical areas, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine. But poverty’s detrimental impact on brain development may be mediated by basic early interventions like compassionate parenting and caregiving, the report says.

(Digital Shotgun/flickr)

(Digital Shotgun/flickr)

Growing up poor is already known to be associated with a higher risk of “poor cognitive outcomes” and school performance, the researchers note. But what’s fairly new here is how outside economic forces play out in the development of a child’s brain. According to the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics Monday:

Poverty was associated with smaller white and cortical gray matter and hippocampal and amygdala volumes. The effects of poverty on hippocampal volume were mediated by caregiving support/hostility on the left and right, as well as stressful life events on the left.

The finding that exposure to poverty in early childhood materially impacts brain development at school age further underscores the importance of attention to the well-established deleterious effects of poverty on child development. Continue reading

Study: Dad’s Spanking Can Lead To Cognitive Problems For Children

Spanking is bad. We know that. Early-childhood spanking has been consistently linked to troubled and troubling behavior later in life.

But new research out of the Columbia University School of Social Work sheds light on the particulars of that bad-ness, and offers details on how spanking may impact a child’s cognitive development. The new data, published in the journal Pediatrics, suggests that paternal spanking at age 5 is connected to verbal skill deficits at age 9.

Researchers, led by Dr. Michael MacKenzie, looked at data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being (FFCW) Study. The FFCW gathered information on more than 4,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 average-sized U.S. cities; researchers assessed reports of spanking at age 3 and 5 along with results from behavioral and cognitive tests at age 9.

This represents the percentage of parents responding "yes" to spanking their child in the past month. (Source: Pediatrics, graphics by Rachel Bloom)

The percentage of parents responding “yes” to spanking their child in the past month. (Source: Pediatrics, graphics by Rachel Bloom)

One fact emerged early on: spanking is a common practice. Although the use of spanking declines from age 3 to 5, researchers report more than half of moms and about a third of dads spank their young kids at least once a month. Some children were punished more than others; when kids were 5, 5.5% of moms and 3% of dads reported spanking them at least twice a week.

So, what did spanking do to these kids? Frequent (at least twice per week) spanking at age 3 and any spanking at age 5 by mom predicted bad behavior at age 9; and frequent spanking by dad at age 5 predicted vocabulary deficits. Continue reading

More Concern Over BPA, Link To Breast Cancer

 

USA Today sounds the latest warning on BPA, or bisphenol A, in a report on growing concerns that the industrial chemical and synthetic estrogen (which is still used as a lining in many canned goods as well as in plastics and other common products) may be linked to breast cancer.

The news report cites a just-released study by advocates at the Breast Cancer Foundation that focuses on the potential dangers of prenatal exposure. According to the report:

Prenatal exposure to this toxic endocrine-disrupting chemical is of even greater concern than childhood exposure.

During the prenatal period, the foundation is set for how the body’s systems develop, and animal and human studies show us that fetal exposure to BPA can set the stage for later-life diseases, including breast cancer.

To understand the mechanism at work, reporter Liz Szabo quotes Tufts biologist Dr. Ana Soto, who published a paper last month that found BPA increased the risk of mammary cancers in rats:

In two studies of rhesus monkeys published last year, other researchers found that BPA disrupted egg development, damaged chromosomes and caused changes in the mammary gland that made animals more susceptible to cancer.

Soto says it’s possible that prenatal BPA exposure makes fetuses more sensitive to estrogen, a hormone that drives the growth of most breast cancers. In that way, BPA could indirectly increase the risk of breast cancer later in life. Continue reading

Study: Yelling At Kids Comparable To Physical Punishment

I would never, ever hit my kids. No one in my social circle would. But many of us do something that may be just as bad: we yell.

Orange Steeler/flickr

Orange Steeler/flickr

According to a new study published online in the journal Child Development yelling — defined as shouting, cursing or insult-hurling — may be “just as detrimental” as physical punishment to the long-term well-being of adolescents.

I grew up in a family of screamers and to this day I remember the sting of an out-of-control raised voice. It was one of those things I vowed not to do as a parent. But I do it, and then I feel dirty.

And I know I’m not alone. A few years back, reporter Hilary Stout declared that “yelling is the new spanking” in The New York Times:

Many in today’s pregnancy-flaunting, soccer-cheering, organic-snack-proffering generation of parents would never spank their children. We congratulate our toddlers for blowing their nose (“Good job!”), we friend our teenagers (literally and virtually), we spend hours teaching our elementary-school offspring how to understand their feelings. But, incongruously and with regularity, this is a generation that yells.

“I’ve worked with thousands of parents and I can tell you, without question, that screaming is the new spanking,” said Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, which teaches parenting skills in classes, individual coaching sessions and an online course. “This is so the issue right now. As parents understand that it’s not socially acceptable to spank children, they are at a loss for what they can do. They resort to reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3 and quickly realize that those strategies don’t work to change behavior. In the absence of tools that really work, they feel frustrated and angry and raise their voice. They feel guilty afterward, and the whole cycle begins again.”

Here’s The Wall Street Journal’s take on the study and a few more salient points from the University of Pittsburgh press release:

The paper…concludes that, rather than minimizing problematic behavior in adolescents, the use of harsh verbal discipline may in fact aggravate it. The researchers found that adolescents who had experienced harsh verbal discipline suffered from increased levels of depressive symptoms, and were more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as vandalism or antisocial and aggressive behavior…

The study is one of the first to indicate that harsh verbal discipline from parents can be damaging to developing adolescents.

Perhaps most surprising, Ming-Te Wang, of the University of Pittsburgh and Sarah Kenny, of the University of Michigan, found that the negative effects of verbal discipline within the two-year period of their study were comparable to the effects shown over the same period of time in other studies that focused on physical discipline. Continue reading