May 9, 2014 9:02 pm

Study looks at where kids may get their rule-breaking qualities from

HALIFAX – A research study in Halifax is trying to determine whether moms pass on rebellious and rule-breaking qualities to their children.

Dr. Kathleen Pajer, the Chief of Psychiatry at the IWK and professor at the Dalhousie Medical School, is leading the study.

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She said researchers are focusing on how women respond to stress and how that potentially impacts their children. Pajer describes stress as both positive and negative and said it is the body’s response to a change in the environment.

“There’s a group of moms who we think actually have low stress response system function. We want to see whether that low response system function also translates into low or delayed stress response system function in their babies,” she said.

Pajer said that group of women is what researchers call the rebellious, rule breaking group: women who have a history of running away from home, encountering violent situations or getting in trouble with the law.

“[These women] also often have babies who grow up to be kids with rebellious nature. We’re trying to see if that stress response system is the link.”

Though Pajer says external factors also play a role in how rebellious kids become, such as their neighbourhoods or parental supervision, she is looking for an additional explanation that could include a child’s mom.

“If that’s the case, could we do something during pregnancy to maybe help their babies before they’re even born?”

One participant in her study is Chyenne Comeau, 19, mother to baby Raelenea, who will soon be one year old.

Comeau admits she was a bit of a rule breaker when she was younger.

“I was a bit rebellious [but] now I find I need to live by the rules and settle down now that I have a daughter,” she said.

The researcher said she is not examining genes but rather looking elsewhere for the answers.

“We’re looking at the environment inside the womb, which is partially a response to the mom’s experience of stress outside in the real world.”

In Pajer’s experiment, women are subjected to a series of stressful situations, including preparing for an impromptu job interview and speaking for five minutes to stone-faced judges about why they qualify for the position while under time pressure and being recorded by a video camera. After the women deliver their babies, researchers collect the baby’s saliva, monitor their heart rates and do developmental exams on them.

If a connection is found, Pajer said the next step of her research would be looking at whether those qualities can be genetically turned on or off. She will examine whether interventions such as yoga or meditation could have an impact on the women’s stress response system.

Asked whether she expects her work to be controversial, Pajer said there is the possibility.

“I’m a physician and my goal is to try and fix things or help people function better,” she said.

“A lot of the babies who are born to moms who have this kind of severe rebelliousness grow up to have kinds of problems that will make them unhappy in their lives. It also prevents them from living up to their potential.”

“I suppose someone might say, ‘If you can’t tell me for sure that the baby is definitely going to have some sort of a major problem, then I don’t think we should be spending money on that’. It’s a good point because we are talking about an outcome that’s way down the line.”

As for Comeau, she is focused on little Raelenea as well as their contribution to the study.

“Everyone’s going to be scared their child is going to run off when they’re older or not listen to their rules. I’m going to try my absolute best, my fiancé and I, we’re going to try to raise our daughter in the right way so she doesn’t turn out to be a rebellious child.”

Pajer is recruiting between 40 and 50 pregnant women between the ages of 16 to 35 for the study.

“We’re looking for women who don’t have any problems whatsoever. They see themselves as healthy. They feel well. [And we're also looking for women with] some kinds of problems, a little bit rebellious, a little bit sad, a little bit anxious,” she said.

The study is based in Nova Scotia.

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