Parent-Child Interactions Researched at Colorado State University for Clues about Abuse

Can scientists predict if a child may eventually become the victim of abuse or neglect just by looking at patterns of how parents and children solve problems together? That’s the aim of a new study in Colorado State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

More than 200 families with children who are 2 and a half years old will be part of the study. Researchers will look at biological, emotional and behavioral response patterns between parents and children as they solve problems and work out solutions. The study will measure indicators such as heart rate, breathing patterns, emotional expressions, child compliance and parental discipline on a second-by-second level when parents and children are in conflict or challenged with a difficult task like solving a hard puzzle together.

Erika Lunkenheimer, the lead researcher on the study and a professor of Human Development and Family Studies, says that how the interactions play out – especially when a child or parent becomes upset and how the parent responds – may be telling.

“We will look at whether or not the parent or the child ‘drives’ the other’s behavior on a second-by-second basis,” Lunkenheimer said. “We want to better understand those patterns and learn to identify how they point to risk for – or protection from – child abuse or neglect. We think understanding these relationship patterns may improve our prediction of child abuse and neglect, rather than looking solely at a parent or child’s individual behaviors.”

The study includes observing the families for about an hour each across three points in time – when children are 2 ½, 3 and 4 years of age. The process will include cutting edge behavioral and biological methods that are designed to reveal stress – or a lack of stress – in the interaction. The second-by-second analysis of these relationship patterns is a novel approach to child abuse research.

The study’s aim is to identify new and improved risk markers that may indicate that family intervention is necessary. Families will be recruited for the study through partnerships with local schools, community agencies, organizations and Child Protective Services. The study is called the Parenting Young Children Project.

The $643,000 study is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a part of the National Institutes of Health. It is a five-year project with national and international team members. Partners include Manfred Diehl, CSU; David Olds, University of Colorado-Denver; Pamela Cole, Penn State; Kristin Buss, Penn State; Elizabeth Skowron, Penn State; Steven Boker, University of Virginia; and Ruth Feldman, Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is in the College of Applied Human Sciences.