They say hindsight is 20/20, which should mean that we have full knowledge or understanding of the impact of our previous choices. However, there is not always such a direct connection when it comes to child development. In the practice of pediatric neuropsychology, which is the study of brain and behavior relationships, there are two relatively easy to understand domains that impact development, which are sometimes deemed “nature” and “nurture.”
On the nature side, a child’s genetic risk factors are taken into consideration, including the family history of medical or psychiatric difficulties. This domain also includes the child’s prenatal environment, and even things like chronic stress for the pregnant mother, from any source, may increase the likelihood of potential regulation difficulties for the child once born. More well-known prenatal risk factors include physical injury to the mother or ingestion of toxic substances, including alcohol, illicit drugs, or even some prescribed medications; given appropriate prenatal care, physicians can almost always find alternative medications that do not pose a risk to the unborn child that still allow for maintaining well-being for the mother. Clearly, some of these internal risk factors are unchangeable, while others potentially may be adjusted.
The nurture side of this conversation involves environmental, or external, factors once a child is born. Things such as good nutrition, adequate sleep, and appropriate preventative health care are broadly known as important, even if parents are not always successful in getting their toddler to eat a variety of nutritious foods or sleep in their own beds. Further, while most parents realize that reading to a child is an important activity, it is often not clear why something like this should be done even for very young children. As language rapidly develops between birth and three years of age, speaking to a child, reading to them, singing them songs, engaging in word play games, and other such activities provide a foundation for solid vocabulary and appropriate social skills, and lays the groundwork for later reading skills. Activities that are more passive (e.g., watching videos) do not provide children with the same level of interaction.
The wrench thrown into this entire dialogue about internal versus external factors is the fact that children are born into the world with their own temperament and personality, which at times makes any potential protective factors (e.g., strong parent attachment, no family psychiatric history, stable and enriched home environments) almost without consequence. Therefore, it is important for parents to also be flexible and respond to their own environmental factors (i.e., their child) so that the appropriate parenting and behavioral support methods can be employed. This is no small feat, and especially for children with any developmental challenges or other psychiatric difficulties, getting assistance through appropriate clinicians and professionals can be exceedingly important. The first line defense for referrals to any specialist is usually the child’s pediatrician, who can hopefully refer to the appropriate professional, including early intervention specialists, school support teams, psychotherapists, and pediatric neuropsychologists. While rearing a child can often feel confusing and frustrating, there are plentiful resources should more assistance be needed. In that regard, two organizations are listed below that include solid information about potential childhood concerns:
American Psychological Association (APA)
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)