Early Results Show Improved Stress Response for at Risk Youth
> 10/5/2007 9:34:15 AM

Lead by Dr. Laurie Miller Brotman, a team of researchers from the NYU Child Study Center has found that targeting pre-adolescent youths at risk for developing antisocial behaviors can improve their physical responses to stress, a step that they hope will lead to better strategies for helping families deal with troubled kids. Children involved in the study were labeled as at risk if they had an older sibling who had been adjudicated for delinquent acts.

The team worked with 92 pre-school aged children, providing non-medical, family based interventions to 47 families. These interventions included 22 group sessions held once a week for parents and preschoolers, and 10 home visits, one every other week over a 6- to 8-month period. The results, as reported in this month's Archives of General Psychiatry, were positive. Children who received the intervention had markedly improved stress response, as tested by salivary cortisol levels, in anticipation of a stressful event. At the end of the study, the intervention group showed cortisol levels that approached or even equaled those of non-at risk youths. Researchers, using previous study of both animals and humans, believe that this could pave the way for more healthy responses to stress as the children grow.

This study was built on the belief that a large part of antisocial behavior comes from environmental factors that lead to poor stress response. In the study the intervention group learned simple but effective strategies for raising well adjusted children who can handle stressful situations in appropriate ways. Parents in the intervention group learned discipline tactics, positive reinforcement and other tools to help with child rearing. As Dr. Brotman explained in an NYU press release, the implications of their research point to possible solutions to future delinquency:

“Our findings demonstrate the powerful influence of the caregiving environment on children’s biology,” says Dr. Brotman. “We have known for some time that parents play an important role in how young children behave. We have shown that parents of delinquent youth can improve their parenting and these changes result in lower rates of problems in their young children. We have now documented that a program that improves parenting and children’s behavior also leads to biological changes that are consistent with more adaptive non-delinquent behaviors... We are really excited by these findings. They suggest that antisocial behavior isn’t hard wired and parents can be part of the solution.”

Those groups and individuals already involved with efforts to improve parenting and address the problems of at risk children and families should take comfort in this new information. A stronger link between parenting and future delinquency should lead to more preventative efforts and hopefully fewer children showing up in the juvenile justice system. Beyond that though, improving stress response should lead to healthier individuals in the long run. Both behavioral health and physical health can benefit from improved stress management and response, and that means longer, healthier lives for those individuals.

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