The well-being of a child’s parent or primary caregiver is one of the most important factors linked to correcting and preventing health disparities among children, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Kids from low-income or ethnic minority homes are more likely to experience worse physical health, behavioral and/or mental health problems and have substance abuse disorders.
But decades of research, including a new study by Arizona State University, show that being strongly connected to their primary caregiver can protect children from the effects of poverty, discrimination, trauma and chronic stress.
Based on this work, the recently released National Academies report prioritizes supporting primary caregivers.
“We know that a child’s primary caregiver — who is most often the mother — is a good buffer against the adversity a child might experience, and a strong relationship between caregiver and child can begin to level the playing field in terms of health disparities,” said ASU’s Dr. Suniya Luthar, who was part of the interdisciplinary 14-member committee responsible for writing the report.
She is also Foundation Professor of Psychology at ASU and professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Along with other developmental psychologists, Luthar has consistently found that if the primary caregiver is unwell or under stress, the bond between caregiver and child can become dysfunctional and children can suffer.
The new report includes a road map of recommendations for how to address health disparities in children. The first item is the usefulness of intervening early; the second is the importance of supporting a child’s primary caregiver.
“But it is never too late to intervene,” Luthar said. She added that a strong and healthy attachment between children and caregivers one capable of buffering against challenges like growing up in poverty or experiencing chronic stress — is possible in all kinds of families and living situations.
In 2018, fathers were the primary caregiver in 7% of American households, and the report emphasizes that understanding how best to ensure their well-being is also important.
“What mothers need and what fathers need can be very different, and what has been shown to work for supporting mothers might not work for fathers,” Luthar said. “Instead of telling parents to do this or do that, we need to start asking how we can best equip mothers and fathers, individually, for success.”
There are few evidence-based support programs designed specifically for male caregivers, but the report did mention one evidence-based program as a promising model for how to support fathers: The Family Check-Up.
Started by the late Dr. Thomas Dishion, the Family Check-Up teaches fathers and mothers parenting skills, like effective discipline methods, to help address problem behaviors in children.
The program takes a holistic, wide angle perspective to problem behaviors in children, and involves all caregivers, whether they are mothers, fathers, grandparents, or guardians.
“What is happening with the child is not just about the child: it is about the family, the school, and even the neighborhood,” said Dr. Anne Mauricio, who is an associate research professor of psychology at ASU working on scaling up the program. Mauricio said support for the caregiver is a critical part of both the program’s framework and its success.
Overall, evidence-based interventions that provide support to primary caregivers are a feasible and measurable way to leverage the caregiver-child relationship as a buffer against adversity like poverty, discrimination, trauma and chronic stress.
“The interventions just need to have the right ingredients, which are the same for low-income moms with addiction or mental health problems as they are for well-educated moms. Caregivers, just like their children, need ongoing, authentic love and support,” Luthar said.
Source: Arizona State University