Are the kids all right?
University scholars study pediatric and adolescent mental and physical health to find out
BY KIM GIRARD
Cal State East Bay scholars are contributing to a growing body of knowledge about the mental and physical health of children through groundbreaking studies and research. Their work spans subjects including the long-term effects of donor insemination on families, how mental imagery helps kids become more confident in physical education classes and complications resulting from childhood obesity.
Childhood research by CSUEB alumni and faculty members comes at a critical moment. For the first time in two centuries, children may have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Skyrocketing childhood obesity rates and a spike in associated diseases — diabetes, heart disease and cancer — could cut the current generation’s life expectancy by five years, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Visualizing sports success
For Jenny O, an assistant professor in the Cal State East Bay kinesiology department, making kids more confident at physical tasks like throwing a ball or sinking a basket may prove critical to lifelong health.
O is working with a group led by Barbi Law, an assistant professor with Ontario’s Nipissing University, on a multi-project research program. The program examines how mental imagery can be used with children to make them more confident in their ability to be physically active. The group received a $65,354 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
For the first phase of this research, which started in 2010, the team collected data on fourth graders to sixth graders in California and Canada, interviewing kids participating in physical education classes in elementary school.
Through interviews conducted at schools, the researchers recorded detailed descriptions of what the children imagine before participating in a P.E. activity.
One child who played basketball, for example, described himself blasting effortlessly through a wall of defenders to reach the hoop and score. A contrasting interview described a girl’s doubts that she could complete a dive: “(She) imagined herself running up and jumping on the board and saw herself go headfirst into the side of the pool — and the water turns red.”
Negative perceptions like this one may prevent a student from trying new skills — or prompt a child to quit working at a skill altogether. “Kids have vivid imaginations,” O says. “If they have negative images of physical activity, it will deter them from being active.”
O says the group’s results indicate that despite using mental imagery extensively in sport, children are not using mental imagery in P.E. to help them learn and perform various skills and strategies.
In the project’s second phase, researchers plan to determine whether kids who are taught mental imagery techniques to help with learning and performance in P.E. classes experience higher levels of confidence and satisfaction in these classes. This phase, conducted in Canada, concluded in December.
“We want to be able to teach kids how to use (mental imagery) to their advantage, to increase their enjoyment of physical activity and to help them believe that they can do more,” O says, noting that that team has submitted another grant application to extend its research program.
Desk reference for kids’ disorders
In a sweeping recent reference book, Stephen J. Morewitz, author of Chronic Disorders in Children and Adolescents (Springer Publishing, 2011) presents an overview of childhood illnesses from obesity to depressive disorders to diabetes.
Morewitz, a lecturer in CSUEB’s Department of Nursing and Health Sciences, and co-author Mark L. Goldstein identify 13 major, frequently diagnosed conditions in childhood. The book details these mental and medical health disorders and describes their impact on childhood development. It also explores the latest trends in diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation, and the role family, peers and schools play in coping with the disorders.
Chronic Disorders in Children and Adolescents is part of a trilogy of reference books Morewitz has written that cover chronic medical conditions within the human lifespan from early childhood to old age. It’s also one of eight books he’s published to date, with two books forthcoming: the Handbook of Forensic Sociology and Psychology (with Mark L. Goldstein) (New York: Springer) and Kidnapping: New Research and Clinical Perspectives (New York: Springer). (Morewitz also has worked as a forensic sociologist for approximately 20 years).
A recent solo exhibit at the University Library showcased Morewitz’s published works, with books covering topics such as death threats, sexual harassment and medical malpractice. (He has also written for the stage. In 1990, he co-authored a play, Steamship Quanza, based on his grandparents’ experience fleeing Hitler’s Europe by passenger ship with the help of a Jewish husband-and-wife maritime lawyer team in Virginia.)
For his recent reference book, Morewitz, who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago, says he spent months scouring the latest health care data and surveys.
Sensory integration dysfunction (SID), which relates to the brain’s inability to integrate information it gets from sensory systems, is a newer condition included in the book. SID impacts how children react to sights, sounds, smell, tastes, temperatures, pain and body movements. Something as simple as a sweater label can irritate a child with SID, creating anxiety, Morewitz says, adding that this disorder is often misdiagnosed because it’s misunderstood.
Obesity, while more transparent, is linked to “lifestyle and behavior issues that are difficult to change,” he says.
When test tube babies grow up
Do the children of lesbians born with the help of a sperm donor find out how they were conceived at an earlier age than do children of heterosexual couples?
Patricia Jennings, chairwoman and associate professor of the Department of Sociology and Social Services at CSUEB, set out to answer that question in Offspring Searching for their Sperm Donors: How Family Type Shapes the Process (published in the journal Human Reproduction, 2011).
Jennings co-authored the paper with CSUEB sociology Professor Emerita Diane Beeson and DonorSiblingRegistry.com Founder Wendy Kramer.
Data for the case was provided through Kramer’s Donor Sibling Registry, a nonprofit international organization that connects donor-conceived offspring and their non-biological and biological relatives. Of the 741 “donor inseminated” children who took the online survey, about 62 percent had heterosexual parents and 38 percent had lesbian parents.
Kramer’s survey questions addressed family composition, feelings about the method of conception, communication within families, donor anonymity and offsprings’ search for their donors.
Research results found that the children of lesbians are a lot more comfortable expressing curiosity about their donors than the kids of heterosexuals. The majority of the children of lesbian couples understood how they were conceived by age 5, while children in heterosexual families weren’t informed until later in life. About half of the children of heterosexual couples didn’t find out about their conception until age 18 or older.
Jennings speculates that lesbian parents are more often forced to talk to their kids sooner about how they were conceived, because there’s no dad in the house. The study did not explore the reasons why disclosure is less prevalent in two-parent heterosexual families.
Jennings says more research could determine why this happens — whether a stigma of infertility prevents heterosexual men from talking to their kids about sperm donors or whether heterosexual families overall place more of a priority on appearing as a traditional family. One research step toward answering that question would be “a qualitative study of men with donor-conceived children,” Jennings says.
The issue is emotional for children of donors, she adds. When children find out about how they were conceived as adults, they are pretty upset, she says: “There’s more anger, more disappointment.”
As one adult who answered the survey put it: “I felt totally blindsided, sort of dumbfounded, speechless, confused.”
Another survey respondent typified others who wanted to know more about their biological parent: “It makes me angry that I am denied the basic right of knowing who my father was and what ethnicity I am.”
The donor issue is complex. Children of donors, in many cases, cannot get much information on their donors, who aren’t legally obligated to provide a full name or contact information.
Proponents for both anonymity and disclosure in the donor community argue that their side serves the best interests of the donor and the child. Jennings believes more disclosure would benefit children.
“Our basic conclusion is that anonymity might not be in the best interest of the child,” Jennings says.
The majority of children in all types of families desired contact with their donor, primarily to see what their biological parent looks like, followed by a desire to know more about their ancestry and medical history, according to Kramer’s survey.
In related research, Kramer and Jennings looked beyond the parents of these children conceived through donors by delving into Kramer’s survey of 23 grandparents who discovered that they had a grandchild (or in some cases multiple grandchildren), because their own child had donated sperm or eggs. The positive attitudes of the grandparents toward these grandchildren surprised Jennings.
“We expected that the people who already had grandchildren would be less likely to have relationships with donor offspring, and that didn’t hold,” Jennings says. All but two of the participants had some sort of contact with the donor-conceived child, she says. A co-authored article on these grandparents will appear in 2013 in the Journal of Family Issues.
International issues surrounding the fertility business also interest Jennings. Her summer research, Race and the Trade in Human Eggs, examines how difficult it has become to monitor and regulate egg donors in the international fertility industry and for stem cell research.
Some Western European countries restrict the number of times women can donate and the number of eggs that can be extracted in a given cycle. These stricter national laws, she argues, are causing a spike in the international trade of eggs as infertile couples in countries that restrict egg donation cross national borders to procure eggs from women in low-income countries.
Scholars’ contributions continue
Whether it’s an analysis of how kids use mental imagery to develop P.E. skills, an exhaustively researched reference book that provide new awareness of childhood conditions or research linked to how new reproductive technologies impact families, CSUEB scholars will continue contributing to the collective body of knowledge about childhood health.
O, Morewitz and Jennings have pursued unique research paths. But these paths are intertwined and share a common goal: to build a happier, healthier generation of kids.