Parenting strategies can improve health for at-risk mothers
New research shows that early parenting interventions can reduce stress and improve health for at-risk mothers
Parenting can be challenging at the best of times. But for those who haven’t learned healthy parenting skills or are struggling with additional adversity and stress—such as homelessness, domestic violence, or depression—parenting can feel significantly more difficult and actually harm the overall health of the parent.
Studies have shown that these types of stressors over time can even alter people at the cellular level, particularly impairing a parent’s immune health.
But new research, led by Athabasca University assistant professor of health psychology, Dr. Kharah Ross, shows that early parenting intervention—programs designed to teach effective parenting strategies—can help the immune system to ward off long-term health effects of stress.
“We want to make sure that we are interrupting that adversity cycle, and we’re protecting the children and putting them on the best trajectory,” said Ross.
Study supports use of ATTACH program
To explore the impact of early parenting invention and its effect on the immune health of participants, the research team used the Attachment and Child Health (ATTACH™) program.
The 10-week program was developed by University of Calgary researchers Dr. Nicole Letourneau and Dr. Martha Hart. It teaches parenting skills to vulnerable people. It promotes relationship building between the parent and child, while helping parents better understand their own feelings and behaviours, in addition to those of their child.
For the study, Ross and the research team recruited participants through Discovery House, a shelter in Calgary, Alta., for women and families escaping domestic violence. The shelter is one of several community agencies in the region the ATTACH™ team has collaborated with.
During the study, the participants attended weekly ATTACH™ sessions where they would learn how to change parenting behaviours based on their understanding and reflections of past experiences, a process known as reflective function.
For example, instead of reacting in anger to a child throwing a tantrum at the grocery store, which risks escalating the outburst, reflective function teaches parents to stop and pause. By taking the time to think about the situation, including why their child might be throwing a tantrum, parents can react differently and hopefully diffuse the situation.
“All the families [participating in the study] had direct experience of domestic violence, and probably also risked or experienced homelessness because of that violence,” said Ross. “The group also had higher levels of depression, consistent with mothers rebuilding their lives after getting themselves and their children out of a dangerous situation.”
Monitoring the health of participants through gene expression
The research team split the mother-children sets into two groups—one as the control group and the other participated in the ATTACH™ program.
Using blood samples from participants, researchers examined the activity of several different genes in immune cells that are linked to the experience of stress. Stress can activate a pattern of gene expression in immune cells that heightens immune cell activity, possibly in ways that are bad for health.
“The immune system is a very powerful system,” Ross explained. “It’s one of the few systems in your body that can actually blow things up, so you really want to make sure that it’s responding when it needs to respond, and then it’s shutting down when it needs to be shutting down.”
Stress and adversity trigger the immune system towards a more inflammatory or reactive state. When the immune system is reacting or overreacting, it can have negative effects on a person’s overall health, making it easier to get sick. This can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, for example, or a drop in immune response, making the body more susceptible to viruses and bacteria.
Researchers found that after 10 weeks, parents who completed the ATTACH™ program and followed its parenting interventions experienced less stress than parents in the control group.
Ross said she was pleasantly surprised by the results, which showed a positive effect on the participants’ immune systems in such a short time. She added that most studies of parenting interventions focus solely on the child, but that this study was also one of the few that explored both parent and child health outcomes.
The research team’s study was published in the December 2021 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Brain, Behavior, & Immunity – Health.
Transforming the community, one parenting intervention at a time
Ross and her collaborators plan to replicate the findings on a larger scale. The group has received grant funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to teach community agencies how to use the parenting intervention.
As part of the study, the group is hosting a series of webinars about the ATTACH study and related topics. This includes implementation science, patient engagement, child development and biological indicators of health. The webinars are held the last Friday of every month from noon to 1 p.m. (Mountain).