As an elementary school student, Caroline Black remembers being invited to a classmate’s house, where the group decided to play school. Black’s all-female peers told her to pretend to be a child with special needs who needed a walker to cross the room, then suddenly began kicking and pushing her while yelling derogatory comments about her mental and physical abilities.
“At that juncture, a child with strong self-esteem and appropriate socioemotional skills would have either left, found an adult to ask for help, or asserted back and said, ‘You can't treat me this way’," Black said.
Like many children who have been the victims of bullying, however, Black lacked the social-emotional skills to respond. She continued with the game until the other girls said it was over, then went home, saying nothing to her parents. And Black’s parents, who didn’t pick up on cues that something damaging had happened, continued to let her play with the girls anytime they invited her.
“My parents' inability to recognize that I was being bullied was no fault of their own. Their lack of knowledge about symptoms associated with emotional and psychological distress in young children reflects the limited awareness of early childhood mental health in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” said Black, now a PhD candidate in Learning Sciences and Human Development at the University of Washington College of Education.
Those traumatic episodes of bullying in elementary school would spur Black to cultivate a career supporting young children’s socioemotional development.
In response to the challenges she and many other young learners face, Black began thinking about the roles that parents play in supporting young children’s mental and emotional well-being, and which parents and children may have an especially difficult time navigating stressful socioemotional experiences.
During her graduate studies, Black has focused on family-based contexts of mothers who gave birth to their children as teenagers, and implications of these contexts on their children’s mental, emotional and behavioral health. Earlier this fall, Black received a Family Strengthening Scholars grant from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families to fund her dissertation work on the subject.
While past research studies have consistently taken a deficit-based perspective of teen parents—for example, by focusing on how couples fail to stay together or how fathers leave their families—Black is setting out to reframe that standard narrative by examining teen mothers’ inherent strengths. Specifically, she is interested in studying relationships between teenage mothers and their children’s biological fathers to see how these relationships link with their children’s mental health across the first nine years of parenthood.
“There is very limited research on the supportive and emotionally responsive qualities of relationships between teenage mothers and their children’s biological fathers. If we begin to consider inherent strengths of these parents, family support programs may be more likely to resonate with young parents and have a stronger likelihood of providing the support they want.”
Black is pulling her data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study a national, longitudinal research project which targets parents who were not married at the time of their child’s birth. The participants in this study are referred to as “fragile families” to underscore the greater risk of breaking up and living in poverty than more traditional families.
Indeed, Black would like to reframe the field’s traditionally deficit-based narrative by raising awareness that young parents have a desire to maintain their relationships and raise a family together.
“Qualitative research shows that a large majority of teen parents do have a desire to stay together, but there is a point where the supportive nature of their relationship often breaks down,” she said. “If we can identify this point, support programs can be more intentional about when they offer interventions and which services they provide. With proper support, healthy relationships and families are more likely.”
By identifying critical timepoints of these relationships, in parallel with examining the development of maternal parenting behaviors and young children’s emotional wellbeing, Black’s research will provide insights for programs like the Nurse Family Partnership, Parents As Teachers, Early Head Start and alternative teen programs in high schools. She envisions her findings being used to develop program enhancements that are tailored for young couples looking to build responsive relationships and promote resiliency in their children.
“In the next five years, I plan to engage in scholarship that is grounded in community-based participatory research to harness and integrate local knowledge in the design and evaluation of parenting support programs,” Black said. “Supportive and nurturing parent-child relationships can protect children against adversity that they may experience at school or in other social contexts. Emotional support from parents can set a child up to have robust mental health, which is why supporting parents is crucial to their educational success.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications