Parents Have the Power: UHF Webinar Highlights Benefits of Emotionally Responsive Relationships

Kristin Bernard, PhD, shares a model known as Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up (ABC).
Kristin Bernard, PhD, shares a model known as Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up (ABC).

In the earliest days of life, adverse experiences can literally alter a baby’s brain chemistry. 

Stressors like poverty, domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, or simply persistent family stress all negatively affect neurological factors like plasticity, gene expression, and even brain size. This can eventually interfere with how a child learns, processes emotions, and regulates behavior later in life. 

But fortunately, the opposite is also true. 

“We know through research and lived experiences that healthy connections with a safe adult caregiver can [not only] block or lessen the negative effects of adversity and trauma...but can also build up capacity before adversity even enters the picture,” said Brittany Pope, M.S., the Assistant Vice President of Applied Clinical Sciences and Research at the behavioral health nonprofit OhioGuidestone. “We’re here today talking about some of these opportunities to overwhelm the brain and the body with positive, safe, and stable experiences." 

Pope was one of two speakers at United Hospital Fund’s PEDS Learning Network webinar on the power of emotionally responsive relationships in early childhood development. 

The Dec. 14 webinar is part of a series hosted by the Pediatrics for an Equitable Developmental Start (PEDS) Learning Network in their mission to share promising practices that can reduce childhood inequities across New York. 

The webinar highlighted two programs working to ensure caregivers have the tools to build emotionally responsive relationships with their babies and toddlers. Both Pope and Stony Brook University professor Kristin Bernard, PhD, noted how the very stressors positive relationships help protect against—poverty, violence, trauma—can often make it difficult for caregivers in structurally marginalized communities to provide this responsive care. 

Brittany Pope, M.S., shares about OhioGuidestone's program Joyful Together.
Brittany Pope, M.S., shares about OhioGuidestone's program Joyful Together.

At OhioGuidestone, a program called Joyful Together is tackling this problem by giving parents easy-to-do activities or playtime ideas that can infuse joy in everyday moments. 

“Joyful Together is really just building on the strengths and materials that parents already have,” Pope said. “Sometimes as parents we need permission to play.” 

Dr. Bernard shared how a model known as Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up (ABC) uses parent coaching to help caregivers build nurturance, follow their child’s lead, reduce frightening behaviors, and address any obstacles that get in the way of these practices.  

The model has been shown to have long-lasting impacts on both children and their caregivers. In fact, one in two children who displayed at-risk behavior were no longer at-risk after completing an ABC program with Brooklyn nonprofit Power of Two. Power of Two also found that depressive symptoms were eliminated in 76 percent of caregivers who used the program. 

“Whereas adversity can really get in the way of healthy development, we have decades of research now showing that sensitive parenting and secure attachments predict optimal learning outcomes and achievement, social emotional wellbeing, as well as aspects of physical health,” Dr. Bernard said. “The story thus far suggests that what we need to help children lead healthy and happy lives is sensitive parenting.”