Tag Archives: Parenting

The power of peer support

They sat there in the ring, curious, but a bit wary of what was going to come. I felt the adrenalin in me rise, that feeling of being ready for “combat”: focused, breathing the air of anticipation. Conducting interviews, especially focus group interviews, is one of the most fun things I do as a researcher. And I do it far too seldom.

Focus groups are a way to gather information on a topic using the group’s discussion and interaction as a main driver for the exchange. It is called a focus group because the interview facilitator helps the group keep its focus on a certain subject matter. The observer, in turn, helps the facilitator by focusing on the group’s interactions and non-verbal exchanges. As well as the recording devices – the ones that invariably go dead when they shouldn’t.

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Although focus groups do not have a therapeutic purpose, they do have the potential to be a source of support to their participants. Conducted well, focus groups can leave group members with a feeling that they have both given and received support through openly sharing their experiences.

The parents in this particular group all had children with severe disabilities. The burdens they carried were unimaginable to those of us who are blessed with averagely developing children. But they didn’t talk about the burdens: they talked about making everyday life work, the comic situations they sometimes ended up in, the disempowering professionals they had to deal with, and about the unique relationships their disabled children formed with their able siblings.

They laughed, exchanged anecdotes and practical solutions, got upset on each other’s behalves, and talked and talked until we were out of time. I felt elated after the session and privileged to have gained their trust. But what’s more important: they left giggling, talking to each other.

The day after I received an e-mail from the centre coordinator. She said the parents all seemed so happy and at ease, they even seemed to walk taller! Now all the other parents wanted to participate in a focus group as well…

Although conducting focus groups takes skill and an accepting attitude of unconditional positive regard is helpful in facilitating an open discussion, it is not me that worked the magic: it is the power of peer support.

To feel you are not alone in your struggles, to share experiences with people in similar situations, has enormous healing potential. It is empowering to give and take advice and support as equals – each person contributing with unique experiences. Feeling empowered, in turn, increases self-efficacy, the extent to which a person feels they can do something about their own situation.

I certainly hope it won’t take so long until the next time I can charge my combat gear of three microphones and feel the anticipation of a group around me. And if you ever get a chance to participate in a peer support group – go for it!

The Nutcracker – or how experiences get under our skin

Walking along the shopping street near us we saw several man-high Nutcracker figures in the shop windows as Christmas decorations. They looked exactly as the Nutcracker costume used in the ballet we attended two years ago at the Budapest Opera House. Which is why my 11-year-old daughter started humming away on Tjajkovskij’s Nutcracker on our way home. She hummed the part when the rodents come out at night and try to steal the Nutcracker from the little girl. I remember that made a big impression on her.

Yet, my daughter neither knew which tune she was singing or where it came from. It was her brain that picked up one of its imprinted associations and had a little run about it.

That’s just how we learn – by association. It is a use it or lose it game in children and the younger they are, the more circuits the brain is capable of building up. Brain research in the past decade has clearly delivered its message: the more circuits the child builds up, the faster and broader its thinking goes, and the smarter the child becomes.

By age five the least advantaged children have been exposed to 30 million less words compared to children in the highest socioeconomic groups in Northern America. Consequently, the development of their language skills will differ. The PISA test results reflect this trend: in Australia a difference, equivalent to two-and-a-half years of schooling, separates the scores of students in the highest and lowest socio-economic groups.

But not only does the environment affect children’s brains and learning – it also gets under their skin. In fact, it modifies their genes in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

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Photo: Fanni Sarkadi

I still remember a book my father gave me called The Double Helix, describing the discovery of the structure of our DNA. It was the story of Watson and Crick who were awarded the Nobel Prize for that discovery. I was fascinated: everything was coded in our genes and if only humanity got around to brake the code we would know all about human disease and what our futures might entail.

Through the human genome project the code was indeed described almost down to the last gene, just so that we would discover that things are not that simple. Genes can be turned on and off in a number of ways, interacting with each other and the environment – a phenomenon called epigenetics.

Through the chemical process of methylation, our DNA becomes modified as a result of environmental exposure. This means that molecules bind to the DNA, affecting its structure and the way it “acts” within the cell environment. The discovery of epigenetic processes marks a new era of genetics, as significant as the description of the double helix.

An example of what happens is demonstrated in a study of adults with posttraumatic stress disorder where those who have been exposed to childhood maltreatment showed specific epigenetic modifications to their DNA, very dissimilar to persons traumatised later in life. A recent study of twins suggests that not even twins share the same epigenetic programming: some pairs were already different in their methylation patterns at birth, some were similar, but became more different, while some followed the expected pattern of further increasing similarities over time.

Although the pathways through which epigenetic programming happens are not fully understood, if genes required for brain development do not activate as they should, the effects will be visible. MRI scans of the brains of children who have been exposed to poverty show less white and grey matter as well as less hippocampal volumes. The hippocampus is involved in associative memory and is very stress sensitive.

Now here comes the Christmas gift: effects of poverty on the hippocampus were mediated by parental care. Supportiveness decreased the effect, whereas hostility increased it. Thus, caring parents will always make a difference for their children in the face of adversity.

In terms of public policy this means that all children should be exposed to a loving and supportive environment, adequate stimulation, and a little Tjajkovskij to fend off delinquency