Science of Child Behavior Discussed at ISB

Community News


The Islamic Society of Baltimore, in conjunction with the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), conducted a workshop on Sunday, May 6, 2012 on the “Scientific Basis of Behavior - How to Raise a Child” presented by Dr. Mohammed Younus, a child psychiatrist, who has been practicing in this field for 13 years.

Dr. Younus serves as a faculty member and instructor at Johns Hopkins and is a staff psychiatrist at the Child and Family Division of Catholic Charities. He also runs a small private practice.

The aim of the workshop was to raise awareness about the myriad of factors and influences - as determined through years of scientific research data in this field - that shape a child’s personality and behavior patterns. The topic was analyzed in two main segments - the first took a detailed look at the influencing factors and the second examined different parenting styles and how they affected children.

Factors That Contribute to a Child’s Personality Development

Dr. Younus started by explaining that, in the midst of the “nature vs nurture” debate there is evidence that suggests that 40% of a child’s personality is affected by factors over which he or she has no influence. Some of these factors manifest as a result of the genetic make-up of the individual while others come about due to the mother’s effect on the developing baby in the prenatal and perinatal time frames.

“Temperament is very biological, genetic,” said Dr. Younus as he explained that every child is born with his or her unique disposition.  “It is important to understand the temperament of a child, (because) friction happens when (a child’s temperament is) not accommodated. This friction between the temperament and the environment is what makes personality.”

Dr. Younus cautioned that the most influential parenting takes place in the first 7 years of a child’s life, a time period whose importance is underestimated by most parents. Holding up two models of neurons, the cells that transmit nerve signals to and from the brain, Dr.Younus explained how connections are formed between two cells when a new skill is learnt or an activity is frequently repeated.

Using the ability to ride a bike - a skill most people acquire at a young age -  as an example, Dr. Younus said, “I haven’t ridden a bike in 25 years, but if I get on a bike now, I would know what to do. Those nerve connections will be rusty initially but as I practice I would be able to do it perfectly because the basic information is already stored in my brain.”

For every child, “the potential is there, but do we stimulate it enough?” asked Dr. Younus. “It is important to do this in early childhood.”

The intelligence quotient (I.Q.) level that a child will reach is another factor that cannot be influenced, said Dr. Younus. “This (intellectual) potential is determined by the genes from the parents.” Holding up an 8oz. polystyrene foam cup, Dr. Younus asked the audience if that cup would be able to hold more than 8 oz. of water. Similarly, a child cannot reach an intellectual potential greater than his predetermined maximum limit. “This is the potential. Most children don’t reach this (maximum) potential,” said Dr. Younus. Breaking away the top of the cup, Dr. Younus demonstrated how a child’s potential would decrease if his or her brain cells are not stimulated at an early age.

Next, he discussed how the prenatal period affects personality development. “There is lots of study done to show that if a mother is anxious during pregnancy, especially in the 18-25 week time, then the incidence of autism, ADHD and anxiety in the child increases. Anxiety (in the mother) produces adrenalin and cortisone, both of which are deadly to brain cell development (in the child).”

The mother’s diet is also very important. “Behavior problems are very common in mothers who smoke,” said Dr. Younus, elaborating that the effects of second hand smoking are exactly the same. Similarly, alcohol consumption (which Dr. Younus said affects 1 in 10 people in the Muslim community) in pregnancy has been shown to lead to learning disabilities. Dr. Younus shared results of studies showing that children born into families where the father was an alcoholic “inherited the disposition to become alcoholics themselves if they were placed in the right environment (to induce drinking).” This happened, remarkably, even when such children were adopted out at a young age to families where alcoholism was not present.

The infant’s state of health at birth also affects brain development. “The incidence of mental retardation is high in infants who are born not breathing,” said Dr. Younus.

Addressing the critical 0-7 year age period in the child’s life, Dr. Younus said, “You do not know the child is learning because he is not able to express himself. Yet most of the foundation (of learning) is taking place at that time. Everything that you do (as parents, teachers) before age 7 is forming permanent bonds.” This applies to both positive and negative influences.

“If a child is sitting in front of a T.V., video game or phone, he is getting used to action and changes of frame that take place in 1/300th or even 1/1000th of a second (referring to the frequency of changes of frame in visual animations). Is this child going to sit in a chair and pay attention?” asked Dr. Younus. “No. Then the parents and teachers will say, ‘He cannot sit still and learn’. We’re always hearing of increase in the incidence of ADHD. This is because children are more exposed to the electronic screen. There should not be more than 1 hour per day of electronic exposure.”

Referring to the 10 and above age group, Dr. Younus explained that a 10 year old child with an I.Q. of 100 will act his or her age, but if he has an I.Q. of 70, he will act like a 7 year old. “As a rule of thumb, if a child speaks 100 words, he only understands 80.”

Dr. Younus advised parents and teachers that if they request a child to do something and they don’t get a favorable response, to change the sentence structure of their request. This is to ensure a different selection of words in case the child did not comprehend what was stated the first time. “It is good to change the sentence structure. Make 3 different sentences. Convey the same meaning but change the words. We hear parents repeating exactly the same command 3 times and then they will get angry and start shouting. Maybe the child didn’t understand what they said. If a child has receptive language problems, he doesn’t understand you, and its (mistakenly) called behavior problems.”

Dr. Younus went on to explain that education, a sense of well being, behavior and societal influences also play a role on the child’s development, constituting about 60% of the influence.

Styles of Parenting and Their Effect on Children

Dr. Younus outlined the four types of parenting, and then discussed in further detail the effects of each one on the child’s development.

In the Authoritarian style of parenting, the parents provide structure and supervision, but they are not responsive to their child’s needs. They have the attitude that “my way is the right way,” said Dr. Younus. “They are always angry and provide structure. They come across to the child as angry and unresponsive. Their own sense of understanding and satisfaction is more important. “

Dr. Younus explained that children growing up in such homes make “permanent connections towards learning authoritarianism, and they have internalized that. They themselves become authoritarians. They learn to conform to the norms under duress, but once given the slightest chance they will (defy). Most of these children will have problems in the classroom and in society. They defy their fathers and mothers just to spite them.”

In the Authoritative approach, the parents also provide structure and supervision, but they are at the same time attuned to their child’s needs. Citing the importance of responsible supervision, Dr. Younus noted that studies have shown that most bad behaviors are learnt in the 3pm to 7pm time frame of the day, when children are most likely to be improperly supervised.

In the Permissive parenting style, parents do supervise but they provide little structure and present their child with lots of choices. “Children very young do not understand choices, “ said Dr. Younus. This style leads to “very confident kids, but the incidence of behavior problems in this group are horrendous. Anxiety and depression are also very high.”

In the Ambivalent approach, the parent “sometimes wants to parent, and sometimes they don’t”. With these parents, the response to a misbehavior is affected by the parent’s mood at that time rather than by the magnitude of the misdeed. Children from such homes “ misbehave abruptly” and their “behavior has no correlation to incentives” leading to confusion and a lack of understanding of the parameters of behavioral expectations.

Dr. Younus ended the workshop with a reminder to parents to be conscientious of their child’s right over them, and to be especially careful in treating all their children equally and being just between them, as outlined in Islamic teachings. “Your child is the priority,” he advised. “You have to be patient. Your child is looking for your attention. This need for attention to his needs does not change whether the child is an infant in diapers or a teenager. If he doesn’t get your attention through good behavior, he will get it through misbehaving. There is no change in the basic idea.”