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Yale Professor Offers Parenting Advice on Positive Early Childhood Development

May 16, 2016
by N. Shemrah Fallon and Neha Anand

If we raise our children better, are we going to create a more peaceful world?

The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF) featured an interview with Yale Professor James F. Leckman, MD, PhD, in the May 2016 issue of its publication Quarterly. In the interview, “Parenting Advice on Enhancing Early Childhood Development”, Professor Leckman, Neison Harris Professor of Child Psychiatry, Psychiatry, Psychology and Pediatrics, explains how parenting interventions can enhance early childhood development. He discusses both the scientific basis and implementation of such interventions.


It was in the mid-1990's, when Dr. Leckman developed an interest in the neurobiological evidence of parenting while conducting research on Tourette syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), for which he is well known. He noted that early parenting behaviors and preoccupations were similar to symptoms of OCD. This observation gave rise to an investigation on how parents form attachments to their children. He found that the hormone oxytocin, released by the pituitary gland during social bonding, is important for parent-child bonding and interactions. He further questioned how to enhance early childhood development and the idea, "that if we raise our children better, are we going to create a more peaceful world?" In October 2013, he joined with over 40 world experts in attachment behavior in animals or implementation of parenting programs in early childhood development at the Ernst Strungmann Forum in Germany to further explore this theory. The outcome of this collaboration resulted in the first-of-its-kind volume, "Pathways to Peace: The Transformative Power of Children and Families", published by MIT Press in 2014.


In the Quarterly interview, Dr. Leckman discusses the issue of nature versus nurture and explains the symptomatic and genetic risks of children for developing a mental illness whose parents have a mental illness. He also points out that adverse childhood experiences, such as poverty and exposure to trauma or violence, "...even during the prenatal period when the brain is first developing, mold how the brain is organized, and have major impact on how our genes are expressed". He relates that brain imaging studies show that "If you've been exposed to violence, you're at an increased risk of being re-victimized." When asked to what extend are we prisoners of our own family history, Dr. Leckman responds that it is how we are raised in addition to the nature of our early experiences that shape our "moral reasoning, compassion, equity and other character traits", setting the stage for later life.

Although the human nature of resilience is still a mystery, he notes that those who are resilient most often have an understanding adult figure in their life "...who in some way sees in you something special, in some way idealized you and sees you as someone who is able to make a positive contribution". This understanding of why some people change emphasizes the importance of responsive parenting - using sensitive behavior to make a child feel safe while responding to his/her needs and signals.


Many of our interventions have focused on mothers, but the more we can engage fathers, the more likely there will be a positive long-term benefit.

James F. Leckman, MD, PhD

Because attachment and responsiveness don't necessarily come easy, especially to a parent who has experienced traumas in his/her own childhood, Dr. Leckman advocates the advantages of positive parenting strategies. He explains how group-setting parenting interventions provide a support system for parents. As a prime example, he gives the Mother-Child Education Foundation (AÇEV, Turkey) and its parenting interventions that are conducted with separate groups of mothers and fathers. The program demonstrates to parents how enormously reinforcing it can be to learn that by changing the way they respond to their child, they can influence a positive change in their child's behavior. He further reports, “When other parents in the group hear about these changes, it’s much easier for them to go out and try those changes themselves.”

With respect to paternal involvement, Dr. Leckman states, "Many of our interventions have focused on mothers, but the more we can engage fathers, the more likely there will be a positive long-term benefit." He was asked by AÇEV to explain from a neuroscience perspective "...why it was that fathers who came from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds become friends with one another and decided to continue interacting with one another even after the curriculum ended?" He noted the capacity of "the direct interface between our affiliative and our stress response pathways in our bodies and brains and the power of group processes to break down social barriers and stereotypes of the "other"".

How can parents have a better relationship with their children? Professor Leckman advises that after reflecting on their current parenting methods, parents should think whether learning evidence-based parenting strategies would help them become more responsive to the needs of their children. He suggests that interested parents learn more about the early intervention programs: Circle of Security, Mom Power; Triple P, the Power of Positive Parenting; and Parenting Management Training.

Read the full interview.

Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF)

The BBRF is an organization that awards grants to scientific research aiming to alleviate suffering caused by mental illness. Since 1987, the foundation has awarded more than $346 million to more than 4,000 scientists globally. The foundation’s scientific council has 164 members, including two Nobel Prize winners. The publication Quarterly is published four times annually.

Submitted by Nancy Shemrah Fallon on September 14, 2016