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Individual Differences in Environmental Sensitivity to Parenting

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EStoPARENTING (Individual Differences in Environmental Sensitivity to Parenting)

Reporting period: 2016-05-01 to 2018-04-30

Parental care is one of the strongest predictors of child development (Lionetti, 2014; van der Voort et al., 2014). However, some children seem more affected by the parenting quality they receive than others. A substantial number of studies provide evidence that children with certain temperamental characteristics (e.g. negative emotionality or “difficult temperament”), or specific gene variants (e.g. short allele of the serotonin transporter gene), are more vulnerable to the negative effects of poor parenting (e.g. Kim & Kochanska, 2012). Traditionally, these findings have been informed by the vulnerability-stress model (Sameroff, 1983). Central to this framework is the view that some children, due to an inherent vulnerability, are disproportionally more likely to be negatively affected in their development by adverse rearing environments such as child maltreatment, neglect, or insensitive parenting while not necessarily being different from other children in more benign and supportive conditions. In recent years, new ground-breaking concepts emerged suggesting that more “vulnerable” children may not only be more negatively affected by poor parenting but that they also benefit disproportionately more from the influence of positive rearing environments (Aron et al., 2012). According to this perspective of Differential Susceptibility, children differ in their Environmental Sensitivity with some being generally less and some generally more affected by both negative and positive environmental influence (Belsky & Pluess, 2009; Pluess, 2015; Boyce & Ellis, 2005). Furthermore, some theories propose the existence of two sensitivity groups: high (i.e. “Orchids”) and low (i.e. “Dandelions”) sensitive individuals (Ellis & Boyce, 2008). However, this assumption has not yet been tested in empirical studies. In addition, most of this research features individual traits that—while reflecting Environmental Sensitivity to some degree—do not appear to capture the sensitivity construct directly (Slagt et al., 2016).
As part of the EStoParenting project we aimed to develop an observational and objective measure for the assessment of Environmental Sensitivity in preschool children. This measure enables researchers to reliably assess and investigate children’s individual differences in response to the environment and allows practitioners to take sensitivity of a child into account when counselling families on parenting and other issues. Furthermore, Dr. Lionetti and the research team investigated, for the first time, the hypothesised existence of sensitivity groups in the general population drawing on observational and self-reported data and found evidence for three rather than two sensitivity groups.
Building on her extensive expertise in parenting and developmental psychology, Dr. Lionetti developed a new observational measure for the assessment of child sensitivity under the supervision of Dr. Michael Pluess from Queen Mary University of London (UK), and in collaboration with Dr. Arthur Aron, Dr. Elaine Aron, and Dr. Daniel Klein from Stony Brook University (USA). First findings based on the observation of 161 children followed up from age three to age nine, provided evidence that the new measure does indeed capture Environmental Sensitivity to parenting. Importantly, the new measure differed from other established temperament traits that have been associated with Environmental Sensitivity in previous research, and finding suggest that the measure captures sensitivity to both negative and positive aspects of parenting. In more detail, highly sensitive children who experienced lower quality parenting were more at risk for the development of externalizing and internalizing behavioural problems at age three and six, and displayed more depression symptoms at age nine. On the other hand, if highly sensitive children experienced a more positive and responsive parenting they had the highest levels of social competence at age three and six (Lionetti et al., submitted).
Dr. Lionetti made further contributions to the study of Environmental Sensitivity by investigating the existence of hypothesised sensitivity groups in the general population which resulted in two publications in leading journals reporting the existence of three sensitivity groups (Lionetti et al., 2018; Pluess et al., 2018). She also contributed to a review paper on sensitivity in response to psychological interventions (de Villiers, et al.,, 2018) and wrote a paper on a meta-analysis regarding the association between sensitivity and personality traits (Lionetti et al., under review). Moreover, Dr. Lionetti worked together with colleagues from Belgium on a paper aimed at validating the child self-report questionnaire for the assessment of the construct of Environmental Sensitivity in Belgian children (Weyn et al., submitted).
Dr. Lionetti made a substantial contribution to the field by developing and validating a new observational measure of Environmental Sensitivity, which enables the assessment of sensitivity in children too young to complete a questionnaire. The results showing that parenting practices are particularly important for more sensitive children have already been disseminated at scientific conferences but also to the general public with important applied implications for people working (as teachers and clinicians) and living (as parents) with highly sensitive children. For example, Dr. Lionetti has been invited as a keynote speaker to a meeting for highly sensitive people in the USA and to a congress in Spain for teachers, parents and practitioners working with highly sensitive children.
Moreover, Dr. Lionetti investigated the existence of different sensitivity groups in the general population across school aged and young adults with results suggesting that there are three rather than two sensitivity groups. This was the first empirical effort to explore and confirm the existence of different sensitivity groups in a human sample, applying a modern data-driven statistical approach and based on the specific measurement of a general sensitivity trait rather than distal markers of sensitivity (Lionetti et al., 2018, in Translational Psychiatry). A set of additional analyses investigating characteristics of low, medium and high sensitive individuals suggested that highly sensitive individuals tended to be more introverted and prone to negative effect compared to the other groups. However, they also appeared to show a stronger emotional response to positive experiences (i.e. experimental mood induction). One important implication is that high sensitive individuals may be more responsive to psychological intervention.
Currently, Dr. Lionetti et al. are in the process of exploring the association between observed sensitivity and various genetic polymorphisms in the full dataset of 450 children (coding by trained PhD student in progress). Furthermore, Dr. Lionetti et al. are also working on the development of a new teacher-report and observer-rated measure of sensitivity to be applied in the school context. This has been made possible through a new research grant by Jacobs Foundation (Science of Learning call), awarded to Dr. Lionetti (co-PI) and Dr. Pluess (PI). This grant is a direct result of a productive collaboration fostered by the Marie Curie fellowship and will allow Dr. Lionetti to continue working as a post-doc researcher at QMUL with a leading role in this new project.
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