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Graduate student researching parents and children facing adversity earns Doris Duke Fellowship

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

LAWRENCE — A doctoral student in clinical child psychology at the University of Kansas has won a competitive Doris Duke Fellowship for the Promotion of Child Well-Being from a panel of experts at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, one of just 15 students selected nationally.

In addition to $30,000 to support completion of her dissertation and related research, Bridget Cho will have the opportunity to participate in a peer-learning network of fellows, their academic and policy mentors, expert researchers and policymakers.

“It opens doors for me to communicate and collaborate with these people,” Cho said. “Sometimes, we tend to get siloed in psychological and social work, so we don’t communicate as much as we should. The organization is trying to break down those barriers.”

For her dissertation, Cho is investigating the parenting of mothers and fathers who have lived through stressful, dangerous or threatening experiences —  factors which often lead to negative parenting behavior and put children at risk of adverse experiences.

“We sometimes see adversity clustering in groups,” Cho said. “Adversity can include anything from abuse you experienced as a child, to neglect, to seeing violence in your community or having a caregiver with mental health problems.”

Cho’s dissertation work is one part of the larger Preschoolers' Adjustment and Intergenerational Risk (PAIR) Project led by her academic mentor Yo Jackson, professor of clinical child psychology.  

“Bridget’s project provides first-time evidence of how exposure to childhood adversity impacts parenting and how youth learn emotion regulation skills from their caretakers,” Jackson said. “This learning is influenced by life events, even ones that happened long ago in the life of the parent but that have current consequences on how parents interact with their children. It is the nature of the parent-child interaction that is so pivotal to adjustment for early childhood-aged youth, and Bridget’s project will shed new needed empirical evidence for just how emotion regulation skills are passed down from parent to child.”

Through her policy mentor, Briana Woods-Jaeger of Children’s Mercy Hospital, Cho connects with many participants in her research through Operation Breakthrough, an Early Head Start/Head Start agency in Kansas City that “provides a safe, loving and educational environment for children in poverty and empowers their families through advocacy, emergency aid and education.”

“We develop interventions with parents and teachers to give them skills they need to cope with stress and be more effective,” Cho said. “These include mindfulness and emotional-regulation skills to build up their caregiving capacities.”

Cho said her dissertation is concerned with the link between parents’ experience of adversity and how it affects their parenting behavior later in life, sometimes decades afterward.

“We see parents having problems regulating their emotions,” Cho said. “It affects their ability to cope with negative emotions and the stress of parenting. Parents who have experienced early adversity may tend to be less sensitive in interactions with their kids, harsher or more negative, or more detached and withdrawn. Childhood adversity has stopped happening, but it can affect development of kids’ cognition, emotions and even physical development that can affect them across their lifespan. Even though childhood experiences have come and gone, they leave lasting marks parents are still grappling with.”

According to Cho, these same parents must handle current adversity that can influence their behavior when dealing with their children.

“Current adversity includes all the stressors parents are experiencing here and now, adding to that burden on them and creating more difficulty with parenting,” she said. “For example, living in poverty, living in communities with a lot of violence, experiencing assault and having difficulty making ends meet. Part of the question I’m trying to answer is what’s the contribution of childhood versus current adversity.”

Cho graduated from the University of Rochester in 2011, majoring in psychology and writing her senior thesis on the effects of prenatal anxiety and postnatal maternal caregiving on infants’ cortisol responses. She chose KU for graduate work based on the strong reputation of the clinical child psychology graduate program.

“KU gives some of the best training in the country in clinical child psychology,” she said. “I feel privileged to be part of the program, and I’ve benefited from it tremendously. A big part of it is the ability to work with faculty like Yo Jackson and Eric Vernberg. The in-house KU Child & Family Services Clinic is an opportunity to see kids from the community and learn how to provide therapy in that context.”

Cho plans to finish her dissertation and earn her doctoral degree in 2019, after which she said, “I kind of want to do everything.”

“I’m passionate about research,” she said. “I also love program development — creating new programs or adapting existing ones to make treatment more accessible and relevant to people and address barriers to treatment, especially for families more prone to experiencing adversity. But I also have a big passion for clinical work — I love working directly with families. In an ideal world, I’d do all of those things. A possible setting for me might be an academic medical center.”