I grew up in a large and unusual family. By the time I was seven, both of my older brothers had gotten married and had children, so ever since I can remember, there have always been babies and children in my life. By the time I was eight, I could change diapers and get a baby to eat their pureed sweet potatoes like a champ. My nieces and nephews and I grew up together, but I also grew up watching my brothers and sisters-in-law learn how to be parents. Looking back, it is clear to me that these experiences shaped my scholarly interest in families and child development.
As a student at Hamilton College, I took as many psychology courses as I could possibly cram into my schedule. Although I arrived at Hamilton intending to pursue a career as a clinician, as time went by I found myself more and more excited about all the fascinating research we discussed in class. To pursue this interest further, I spent the summer after my sophomore year working with my favorite psychology professor, Dr. Julie Dunsmore, on an observational study investigating social and emotional competence in four-year-old children. The experience I gained that summer was invaluable to my later career. I learned how to recruit families, conduct interviews with small children, and collect observational data. I also participated in discussions of how to code and analyze naturalistic observations of peer interactions. Most importantly, I discovered that I loved developmental research, particularly related to how children learn to express and regulate their emotions.
I continued to pursue my interest in human emotions in my senior thesis in psychology, for which I completed an independent research project on how people perceive emotions in music under the supervision of Dr. Penny Yee. Although my project wasn’t developmental per se, the experience of designing, implementing, and writing about my own study confirmed my growing suspicion that research was really what I wanted to do.
The fall after I graduated from Hamilton College, I began a PhD program in developmental psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign under the supervision of Dr. Karen Rudolph. While at Illinois, I primarily worked on two longitudinal research projects: one interview study assessing stress and psychopathology in mothers and adolescents, and one large school-based survey and observational study of peer victimization in elementary school. I spent much of my time in graduate school poring over detailed interviews about children’s stressful experiences, administering surveys to children and teachers in elementary schools, and observing children interacting with their peers on the playground (I got hit by a stray kickball more than once, but at least I got to be outdoors – pretty uncommon for research in psychology!)
In the context of these two projects, I was introduced to developmental psychopathology, a theoretical perspective through which researchers seek to understand how and why people develop in particular ways. I focused in particular on the role that parents play in helping children learn how to manage stress. In a series of studies, I found that when parents make suggestions to their children about how to cope with stress, they have the potential to help or to hurt – sometimes parents’ suggestions predict healthy outcomes, but sometimes parent’s suggestions make children vulnerable to problems such as depression. However, there is still much to learn about how children learn to cope with stress, which brings us to my current research program as a faculty member at the University of Vermont.
I decided to name our laboratory at UVM the Family Development Lab because the broad goal of our research is to understand how parents and children learn and grow together over time. In our lab, we are interested in the complex ways that parents and children influence one another. We pay particular attention to how family members cope with stressful experiences and regulate their emotions, especially in the context of relationships with other people. We are also interested in learning more about the unique, wonderful, and often stressful experience of being a parent. We ask these questions using a variety of methods, including surveys, interviews, observations of family member interactions, and physiological measures of responses to stress such as heart rate and blood pressure. We hope that our research will help us understand how parents and children learn to cope with life’s challenges, great and small.