Parenting deteriorates when families face different risk factors at once, study finds

Published on December 12, 2013 at 6:05 AM · No Comments

Family Life Project releases major new findings

New findings from a long-running study of nearly 1300 rural children by UNC's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) reveal that parenting deteriorates when families face a number of risk factors at once. As a result, children's intellectual, emotional, and social development suffers.

The findings from FPG's Family Life Project explain why a combination of risk factors like low maternal education, low income, and unsafe neighborhoods is a strong predictor of adverse outcomes for young rural children. "When social challenges mount for families, it's likely this cumulative risk negatively affects parenting, which in turn hinders child development," said Lynne Vernon-Feagans, the study's principal investigator.

According to Vernon-Feagans, a fellow at FPG and the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor in UNC's School of Education, roughly 20% of children in the United States live in rural communities, but surprisingly few studies have looked at poor children from these areas. Since 2003, the Family Life Project has helped to fill this gap by producing integral peer-reviewed articles, while following 1,292 children from birth.

"We're examining a very understudied group of children in rural areas, and the study is sizeable," said Vernon-Feagans, who published the latest findings with FPG fellow Martha Cox and key investigators from the Family Life Project in a special monograph from the Society for Research in Child Development.

In order to understand the effects of poverty on parenting and child outcomes, Vernon-Feagans, Cox, and colleagues wanted to account for the most important risk factors that poor rural families face. They used "cumulative risk" to incorporate measures of maternal education, income, work hours per week, job prestige, household density, neighborhood safety, and the extent to which the parents are consistently partnered.

The study also observed parenting in the home by looking at whether parents were sensitive and supportive or harsh and controlling. Likewise, researchers observed the amount each mother talked to her child during a wordless picture book task, as well as recording the material investments that parents made in their child's development.

In addition, the study examined important outcomes for children at age 3 by focusing on skills that enable children to undertake flexible, coordinated decision-making-a crucial ability for school readiness and academic achievement. Measures of language skills and social and emotional behavior also contributed to a model that revealed how numerous childhood skills are related to cumulative risk, telling a significant story about rural children in poverty.

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