Children who grow up in poverty often have mental health and behavioral issues that extend into their adult lives, but research shows that there are ways to help prevent these negative effects. A study published in the journal Child Development by University of Pittsburgh researcher Jamie Hanson, PhD, and his team found that family-based interventions helped children emotionally combat the negative effects of poverty by strengthening connections between important parts of each child’s brain.
Researchers collected data from African-American families in low-income areas of the Southeastern United States. As part of the study, some parents and their 11-year-old children participated in the Strong African American Families (SAAF) program, while others did not participate in the program and were analyzed as a control group. The SAAF program focuses on parental support and communication, preventing risky behaviors, and teaching children skills such as setting and attaining goals. Child participants in both groups returned years later at age 25 for a follow-up brain scan, and parents of participants completed questionnaires. Researchers found that at age 25, the children who completed the SAAF program had fewer behavioral issues and showed stronger connections between the areas of the brain involved in memory and decision making.
Hanson’s research suggests that a family-based intervention that teaches children to self-regulate, manage their emotions, and remember their coping skills in times of emotional stress can influence brain connectivity and may help protect children from the negative effects of growing up in poverty. While additional research is needed to fully understand these connections, the authors suggest that “these results should motivate policy makers to invest in evidence-based prevention programs in adolescence, as well as childhood. Such practices are in increasing need, as the rates of childhood poverty have risen steadily in recent years, and this trend has been especially pronounced in rural, African-American communities.”
Learn more about children’s mental health and behavior studies at Pitt+Me.