Claire Corlett

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Phil Fisher: The Realities of Stress on Children

Phil Fisher: The Realities of Stress on Children


Chris: Phil, thanks for coming by the ELN studio. Phil: My pleasure. Chris: We appreciate your time. Phil: Glad to be here. Chris: So, much of your work focuses
on stress that can occur in infancy and childhood. Now, I am a
practicing parent and I’ve gone through three of those situations but– Phil: So, you’re an expert. Chris: Well, no I’m a failing– this is why I want to talk with you. I need the help. But I’m assuming it’s not my stress that you’re focused on– it’s the events around kids. So, talk to
me about that. How do you define stressful experiences for children and
infants? Phil: Well, I think one of the most useful ways to define stress in children has to do with the extent to which people talk about it getting under the
skin. That is, there are lots of things in the environment or in the world of the
child that can affect the child’s well-being. Some of them are things that
are outside of the family–things like poverty and lack of access to resources
and neighborhood violence and crime. And so we think about stress as the kind of
the chronic activation of these systems in the absence of the kind of supportive
relationships that I’m sure you provide to your children and that other–it
doesn’t have to just be parents, but that meaningful adults and children’s lives
can provide. Because especially very early in life, children don’t have the
capacity to bring those systems kind of back into alignment. Chris: That’s what I was going to ask– are children’s and infants’ brains able to adapt to stress? Are there
changes that occur in the brain when they experience persistent stress? What’s the biology? You just mentioned it. Phil: One way to think about it is that the
systems that exist–and they’re not just in the brain, there are also bodily
systems that have to do with the immune system functioning and metabolizing
energy in order to help mobilize responses to stress–that those things
are all very effective at dealing with short-term kinds of situations,
in which those kinds of responses are necessary. The challenge becomes when
those systems are activated really on a continuous basis, we’re not very well set
up by evolution to be able to deal with very long-term chronic stress. Chris: And so how do you talk, I assume that you talk as well with parent and teachers what do you talk with parents about? Is
there anything practical? Phil: I mean, again the activation of these systems is one piece of the puzzle right? And certainly
under conditions where stress is ongoing, which occurs in many people’s
lives and and is certainly you know sort of distributed across the economic spectrum. It’s not just in conditions of poverty. Lots of people
have stress in their lives. But the other side of the equation is the extent to
which adults in the child’s life, by being supportive and responsive and
available for the child and nurturing, really do help to buffer the child
against those kinds of experiences. And that’s what the research is showing
consistently, is that where you see elevations in things like stress
hormones, or you see brain changes that are the result of chronic stress
the presence of supportive, responsive caregiving is the single biggest thing
that brings those bodily systems kind of back more into balance. Chris: Tell me about the FIND video coaching intervention. Phil: I would love to. We spent a lot of time developing programs to support adults, including parents, but also other
caregivers in children’s lives. People don’t love to be told what they’re doing wrong, and new skills are sort of hard to, you know, to lay out in terms of “this is
what you should be doing.” What we found when we started videotaping families–and we’ve been doing this now for many years, and with thousands of families–is that
the seeds of this kind of supportive buffering interaction are present almost in all situations, including what would be traditionally considered
very concerning contexts, like parents who have significant substance abuse problems and addictions, parents have had their children removed
and placed in foster care. Even when we videotaped those families,
we see that there are many instances in which parents are actually engaged in
this kind of buffering care. So, the video coaching films adults and children
interacting in real-world settings, like home or childcare, and then extracts out
these brief moments where magical things are kind of happening
that naturally occur. Then we have great results from some of the research we’ve
done on this, including that it does actually increase this kind of
responsive parenting, but we’ve also done some really interesting work looking at
parental brain activity before and after the coaching, and we find that parents
get better at just general kind of self-control on tasks that are kind
of these button-pushing tasks, where they have to withhold responses, and that
after the coaching, we also see changes in kind of the areas of the brain
involved in self-control, just from showing them things that they’re doing
with their children and encouraging them to sort of wait to see what the child
does and respond. Chris: And are these video interactions, are they accessible at scale for people? How do people get to them? Phil: Yeah, I mean one of the the main
goals in engineering this particular approach was to make it readily
available in community settings. So for instance, we have a statewide
implementation of this program in Washington State, in the childcare
improvement system there, and we have another number of other really
large-scale projects, including right now we’re just getting started in New York
City’s homeless shelter system. Part of the idea is that showing
people instances in which they’re doing supportive things is fairly
straightforward, which means that community members are able to kind
of deliver the coaching, once the information has kind of been extracted
and put into these specially edited films. It’s really easily available. Chris: And are these local and state policymakers who are working with you to bring
the capabilities into the centers and into the New York centers? Phil: That’s right. So, it’s a combination of private philanthropy that’s paying for
some of the initial implementation, and then state agencies that are really
interested in providing supports in these contexts. I should point out, though,
one of the things that I think is really exciting about this work is we started
this as a parent support program, and it was people who work in childcare who said this would be as useful for coaching child care providers as it
is for parents. So it’s something that sort of goes across these different
contexts, but is the same content in all of those contexts. Which means it’s
getting at really these kind of core processes that are most important for
reducing stress and supporting families. Chris: It’s terrific work. Thank you for doing it, and thank you for stopping by our studio. Phil: My pleasure. Thanks for asking.

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