May 5, 2016

Parenting: not quite child's play

Early childhood experiences shape children and their lives – and parenting plays a critical role. University of Calgary research studies child development and what parents can do to set their children on a more successful path.

From the moment he was born, five-year-old Jonathan (not his real name) has not had an easy life. At the time he was born, his mother was 16 years old. His father is no longer part of his life. The two – mom and son – live in a low-income, high-crime area of Calgary, and they have little family support. Jonathan’s circumstances are far from ideal and could influence his personality, health and opportunities later in life. And his story is not unique.

But that doesn't mean that fates are predetermined for children like Jonathan. With the help of a five-year, $500,000 Canada Research Chair grant, Sheri Madigan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Arts, studies ways to improve children’s opportunities in life.

An expert in early childhood development, as well as a clinical psychologist, Madigan says that one in about every four children shows deficits in language, learning, physical development and/or social behaviour before they start school. Looking at large data sets from families in Canada and worldwide, Madigan analyzes why these deficits occur. Her research identifies factors in a child’s early environment that can set a child up for success, or steer them toward deficits. Those factors include parenting behaviour, the degree of conflict in the home, the socioeconomic status of the family and the neighbourhoods they live in.

“There can be a variety of critical influencers in a child’s environment,” Madigan says. “But if we learn which of these stressors are most important for predicting children’s growth, development, and prosperity, we can develop targeted interventions to help children springboard onto the best path to success.”

The first 1,000 days 

Madigan has examined hundreds of studies on parent-child relationships around the world, and she has studied and worked with groups of young children, adolescents and parents across Canada. Much of her research shows links between long-term stress, childhood stress and chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Parental trauma, even if it occurs before a child is born, can negatively affect a child’s life from the moment he or she is born, too.

But there is always hope, Madigan says. She has found that when it comes to making a permanent positive change in a child’s life, early intervention is best. “The first thousand days of a child’s life are critical to their development,” says Madigan.

That idea is echoed by University of Calgary alumna Ilona Boyce, executive director of the EvenStart For Children Foundation, who has been has been working in child development for more than three decades.

“Maybe there are a lot of other things going on in a child’s environment: marital conflict, tension, aggression. If we can help alleviate some of those stressors, the child does better in life, both short-term and long-term.”

If young children are raised in high-stress situations such as poverty, abuse or neglect, she says, their brains develop differently than those who experience less upheaval in their lives. In other words, chronic life stress can and does affect our intelligence, says Boyce, who graduated from the University of Calgary with a master’s degree in social work in 1978. “If a child lives in a stressful environment 24/7, you see massive delays in brain development,” Boyce says.

“If you don’t move a child out of that realm, that child’s ability to learn is compromised.”

That’s why it’s important to look at all aspects of a child’s family when helping create positive change, says Madigan. “Maybe there are a lot of other things going on in a child’s environment: marital conflict, tension, aggression,” she says. “If we can help alleviate some of those stressors, the child does better in life, both short-term and long-term.”

Parenting behaviour

Yelling at your kids. Ignoring your kids. Being angry, jealous or unsupportive. No parent is perfect, but some behaviours are worse than others, according to Madigan.

“Parents sometimes have role confusion, where they want the child to take care of them” she says. “But we want Mom to manage herself, or she won’t see what the child needs.”

That’s one reason why Madigan has created a roadmap of sorts, a way of understanding what parental behaviours are harmful for children’s development, based on the results of more than 200 international studies. This key to coding parental behaviours is now being used around the world to help disadvantaged parents and families to move beyond “hostile parenting” and learn more effective skills and strategies for managing children’s behaviour.

One-on-one video feedback is another technique that Madigan has used successfully with adolescent and young mothers. “It can teach them parenting skills and create measurable change,” says Madigan.

“If you improve a child’s environment so that they are better able to succeed, you can buffer them from experiencing early risk factors,” such as hostile parenting, abuse or extreme poverty.


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From The Conversation:

New research shows siblings can make you more empathic

How compassion can triumph over toxic childhood trauma

Three strategies to promote empathy in children

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Tips to break negative patterns

There are many concrete things that a parent or caregiver can do to help break negative belief systems and, in turn, develop a disadvantaged child’s brain, say both Boyce and Madigan.

“The ability to move a child out of a stressful state is not complicated,” Boyce says.

First, engage them in a form of child-friendly meditation. “We sit them in a circle, play some soft music and give them a feather that they pass around,” she says.  “Each child will instantly start to relax.”

Exercise is also key to lowering cortisol and moving a child’s state from one of fear to one of calm, Boyce notes. “Every 15 minutes, for instance, they get up and do jumping jacks.”

“Parents can help by comforting the child and acknowledging their pain or hurt, rather than dismissing it by saying 'You are OK.'"

Another way to improve a child’s environment is to simply pay attention to how a child feels. "Parents should try to play one-on-one with their child for at least 10 minutes every day," says Madigan. "Parents can get down to the child's level, follow the child's lead, and provide commentary on what they say and what they do, like 'wow, you stacked up all the red, yellow, and green blocks into a tower!'”

And if a child is sick or hurt or upset, pay attention to their feelings immediately.

“Parents can help by comforting the child and acknowledging their pain or hurt, rather than dismissing it by saying 'You are OK,'" says Madigan.

When parents are sensitive and caring toward children in times of hurt, illness, or distress, says Madigan, “the child will recover from this stress much faster than if the parent ignores the child, or tells them to push their hurt aside.” 

All families can benefit from insights

While Madigan has focused on high-risk, disadvantaged children, she says her and her team's findings are useful for all new parents and parents of young children.

The more insights we all glean into early childhood development, and the more we act on what we learn, the better opportunities our children have, she says.

“Sensitive and responsive parenting gives children a protective shield of sorts,” Madigan says.

“If you can enrich a child’s environment, you can change the trajectory of their existence.”

Things to remember:

  • The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are extremely important – if you can enrich their environment, you can change the trajectory of their existence.
  • Try to play one-on-one with your child for at least 10 minutes every day.
  • If your child is sick or hurt or upset, pay attention to their feelings immediately, rather than dismissing it by saying "You are OK."
  • Sensitive and responsive parenting gives children a protective shield of sorts.
  • Seek intervention/advice/counselling for yourself and your child if you are going through stress or facing adversity individually or as a family – even one-on-one video feedback can break negative patterns.
  • Long-term stress can lead to illness for your child later in life.
  • Seek professional help, if needed, to learn effective parenting skills and strategies


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Dr. Sheri Madigan, PhD, is assistant professor and TIER II CRC - Determinants of Child Development at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Arts and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Her research focuses on determinants of children's early social, emotional, and cognitive development. The goal of her research is to examine how and why various nested layers of influence contribute to children's healthy developmental trajectories or, alternatively, serve to undermine children's development. Find a listing of Sheri's academic papers here.

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