Preparing children for healthy emotional and behavioral development
University of Maryland School of Social Work Associate Professor Lisa Berlin is dedicated to helping parents and caregivers of very young children have the tools they need to form nurturing attachments, which benefit children and adults alike. The quality of early relationships between infants and their primary caregivers is, “crucial for setting the stage for every aspect of development that comes next,” states Berlin.
“I have always been fascinated by babies. I learned about attachment theory and research in an undergraduate class on developmental psychology. It made intuitive sense to me.
Since that time, attachment research has exploded and has helped to drive attachment-focused interventions. My interest is especially in the community-based dissemination – and evaluation – of these interventions. I am interested in understanding if and how they can be delivered in the context of public health services.”
Berlin is making an important contribution to the research on this topic as principal investigator of a five-year project, “Buffering Children from Toxic Stress through Attachment-Based Intervention,” in collaboration with Professor Brenda Jones Harden at the University of Maryland, College Park. Funding from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families enabled this project enabled Berlin and her colleague to offer and assess a 10-week, evidence-based parenting intervention developed by Professor Mary Dozier, University of Delaware, called Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC).
Delivered by specially trained parent coaches, the ABC program was provided to low-income families already receiving in-home Early Head Start services in Washington, D.C., Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. The intervention helps caregivers provide a responsive and predictable environment, thereby establishing a secure and healthy attachment between parent and child. Additionally, coaches offer frequent “in the moment” feedback to parents, which is a highly effective way of reinforcing the practice of targeted parenting behaviors.
The study staff observed parent interactions with their child at home to see how the training played out in everyday parenting. The study also included a cutting-edge way to measure stress in caregivers and children: by collecting mothers’ and children’s heart rate data and cortisol readings through saliva samples. These data points are being examined to understand how improving children’s earliest relationships can “get under the skin” of both the children and their parents, and potentially contribute to long-term physical health. The basic idea is that healthy attachment supports stress regulation – both behaviorally and physiologically. Healthy stress regulation, in turn, is hypothesized to affect physical health. Whereas there are an increasing number of studies linking early relationship quality, stress regulation, and physical health, HOW all these dots get connected, and for whom, is still being mapped out. Berlin and her colleagues are trying to contribute to connecting the dots.
Berlin and Jones Harden aren’t the only researchers studying attachment-based parenting services, but their focus on prevention of emotional trauma in infants and toddlers is particularly under-represented in the literature. “We want to support attachments in families at risk for serious problems,” says Berlin, “before those problems develop.”
The project is currently in the data analysis stage, and Berlin is confident that the numbers will back up anecdotal evidence that the ABC program is making a deep impact. As one mom reported, “I feel that [the ABC program] teaches a lot about how we have to be responsive to our children and offer them…this attention that children need.”
Moving forward, Berlin’s goal is to help expand the infrastructure to broaden the reach of this portable intervention, pointing out that the 10-week, in-home sessions could easily be added to any number of existing service platforms. Berlin, a mom herself, says she wishes the ABC program had been available to her when she was a new parent. “I think everyone,” she says, “should leave the hospital with this option.”
“What excites me most is taking what I consider a crown jewel from developmental science – i.e., the research on the demonstrated importance of early attachment security - and leveraging that to support some of our most vulnerable citizens – i.e., bringing science to bear on seeking social justice for tiny babies!”