by Sylvain Comeau
The Concordia Psychology professor has a hard time retaining her clinical detachment after 20 years. She is a researcher in the Concordia Longitudinal Study of Children at Psycho-Social Risk, a project that began by identifying, in the 1970s, children at risk of developing mental-health difficulties.
Alex Schwartzman and Dale Stack are the other principal investigators on the huge project, which has produced dozens of spin-off studies over the years and includes a large group of graduate students and co-investigators.
The researchers chose boys and girls in a poor francophone Montreal neighbourhood who, as perceived by their classmates, were withdrawn and/or aggressive, and followed them to adulthood. Serbin is now able to study their offspring, and she says that for many, their early development scores are ominous.
"The kids are going to be a mess," she said. "I believe that they will be much worse off than their parents."
While she says that predictions can never be stated with certainty, there is every indication that the parents' problems have been carried over, compounded, to the next generation.
"Their developmental scores are low, lower than their parents were when we first saw them," Serbin explained. "In the school-age sample, for example, half those children urgently needed clinical services for emotional, behavioural and/or learning problems. That was not the case with their parents."
The study was originally launched to identify predictors of mental health problems at an early age, so that problems could be prevented rather than treated later on. The study has since widened in scope to encompass a whole range of interlinked social, psychological and economic difficulties.
"We started to see other social and medical problems emerging very early, so we realized that we have to expand this study," Serbin said. "It would be pointless to look just at mental illness, because that developed after the other difficulties. If a woman is depressed at 28, what happened in her life to cause that?"
Although the researchers have found that such a complex knot of problems is all too often passed on intergenerationally, Serbin has identified a number of "buffers" against failure that help some children beat the odds. By far the most important of these is the parents' level of educational attainment.
"The more schooling they have, the higher their general economic status. Also, the interaction of educated parents with their children tends to advance their development. Simple things like reading to a child, for example, or playing educational games with them, actually spurs growth in certain regions of the brain.
"By getting an education, parents have learned the value of education, so they tend to place a lot more emphasis on it."
Other buffers include high IQ, ability to cope with stress, intact families ("Divorce doesn't help at all") and social support networks, such as extended families. "If Grandma is heavily involved in child-rearing, that can fill in a lot for an absent parent."
Serbin hopes that the results of the study will be used to help kids at risk. Reports will be sent to social service agencies and Health Canada. "We can already teach social service organizations how to identify these kids. They should look for kids who are withdrawn and hostile, or who have learning disabilities. A combination of these factors is real trouble."
A final report on the study will be sent to Health Canada. In addition, the team regularly sends copies of its research papers to libraries across the country, from which Serbin hopes they are disseminated to social service organizations.
"In terms of obtaining government funding for intervention programs, we can give them ammunition -- rational arguments and evidence on what the problems and solutions are. We can give them a justification for spending money on certain kinds of intervention and prevention programs.
"It's a lot easier to prevent a problem early on than to treat it later in life."
Serbin gave a talk as a Concordia University Research Fellow on November 19, and was subsequently interviewed.