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Report concludes that children's brains are "hardwired to connect"

Raising children has never been easy, but parenting presents particular challenges in the 21st century: Divorce rates are higher. Two incomes are a necessity for most families. There's less time for social activities, so participation in community groups —from bowling leagues to civic meetings—has deteriorated. At the same time, more kids than ever suffer from depression, anxiety, and attention deficit and conduct disorders.

Are those trends connected? A panel of 32 leading doctors, neuroscientists, scholars, and youth service professionals combined neural science with social science to find out. The resulting report, titled "Hardwired to Connect: The Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities," was released in September.

Report: "The infrastructure of the community has changed," explains child psychiatrist Kathleen Kovner Kline, M.D., a DMS faculty member and the lead author of the report. "People don't even get together for dinner parties like they used to."

The report concluded that the lack of connectedness in society is partly causing the high and rising rates of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems in today's youth. To help rebuild social connectedness and support optimal child development, the panel coined a new term: authoritative community.

"Authoritative communities are groups of people who are committed to one another over time and pass on what it means to be a good person," says Kline. "It's a long-term, multigenerational investment."

This is a topic Kline has been interested in for some time. After finishing her child and adolescent fellowship at Dartmouth in 1997, she joined the faculty as a child psychiatrist. When she attended some lectures on a concept known as "civil society," she thought, "This is the bread and butter of child psychology. We evaluate the strength of a child's family as part of patient care because it deeply affects a child's well-being."

The biochemistry of social "connectedness" is well documented. Recent animal studies show that the ability and need to become attached to others is biologically programmed; for example, as male marmosets begin to care for their offspring, their levels of the hormone prolactin increase to reinforce the bonding process.

Scientific evidence demonstrates that children, too, are "hardwired to connect" on a biochemical level, first with their immediate family and then with the broader community. If that connection isn't there, then "the brain may not develop as it is supposed to," says Kline. "You can't change genes, but you can change how they are translated, and a nurturing environment can make a world of difference. Studies show that when infants and animals are well nurtured, they are more resilient and less likely to respond to stress in negative ways. It's not nature versus nurture—it's a dance between the two." Trying to understand that interplay, says Kline, is "really exciting work."

Investment: Change, however, will take a society-wide investment. Kline hopes that the report will foster more community activities—like 4-H, Scouts, and religious youth groups. "This is powerful stuff," says Kline. "We hope to get the word out and encourage support of these organizations."

As she teaches medical students and residents, Kline reminds them that what they do in their community and what they do with their families matters at the deepest biological levels. "I tell students that child and parent development go hand in hand. You are changed by the very act of becoming parents," says Kline. "Even if you're not a parent, you will become an aunt, uncle, neighbor, or teacher—still an important role."

And as a clinician, Kline tries to point patients back to their own traditions. "We need to help people rebuild community structures and pay attention to them. These communities—whether it be support groups, neighborhood groups, religious organizations, or youth groups—have proved to be physically beneficial, lowering stress and anxiety levels. As leaders in the community, physicians should encourage families to take the time to engage with other adults and children."

Parent: And as a parent herself of four children, Kline tries to practice what she preaches.

Laura Jean Whitcomb

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