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Looking for Ways to Better Understand Childhood Resilience

Danming An, Developmental Psychologist in Lehigh's Psychology Department

Developmental psychologist Danming An is reappraising the nuances of global cultures, family dynamics, and perceptions to better understand resilience – and risk factors – for children’s well-being.

There are about 2.4 billion children under the age of 18 living around the world, a 2023 UNICEF report found.

Current population projections indicate by 2050 about half of the world’s children will be living in Africa, based on current growth, according to Danming An, an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology.

An is challenging the status quo. She says more work needs to be done to better understand the interplay between culture, family dynamics, social or cognitive perceptions and natural tendencies to better understand how these components contribute as risk or resilience factors throughout childhood. 

Working with others in her field and across inter related disciplines, An seeks fresh ways to approach and understand the factors feeding children’s social, emotional and cognitive behaviors. 

She’s examining how subtle – and sometimes dramatic – differences in character trait labels can be skewed depending upon the cultural lens through which they are viewed.

“It is crucial to understand how social cognition at multiple levels influence children's and adolescents' adjustment and how to create an environment that fosters adaptive and positive social information processing,” An says. 

Cultural differences crucial to understanding

When gathering data and interpreting it, An says context is imperative to understanding. In the complex field of childhood psychology where culture and tradition, parenting expectations – for both adults and their children – and geographic locations may not be taken into account with traditional measuring tools. Accurately identifying what constitutes a potential risk or resilience factor is among the first steps. 

“If you think about all the challenges children are facing – like natural disaster, conflict and war there are more challenging things happening, and we don’t have all the research to help them understand it,” An explains.

She says making space to allow for differences in understanding is vital to achieving positive impacts for children outside many western cultures.

“We cannot just borrow one questionnaire from the United States, for example, about competence because adaptive behaviors are defined by the context and [some traits] could be seen as different in other contexts. I don’t think the current measurements capture that well,” says An, who grew up in Liaoning, a northeastern coastal province in China. She earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in the U.S.

Certain current theories and tools may be more or less applicable across different societal contexts, whereas others may need more adjustment to account for differences in language, culture, tradition and mores. 

“As a first step, we need to conduct more research in the Global South and develop reliable and valid measurement tools for that context,” An says.

The Global South or The Group of 77 at the United Nations is loosely categorized by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as developing countries including Africa, parts of Asia including China, the Caribbean, Latin America and parts of Oceania.  

An is investigating different childrearing practices and their impact on children across multiple cultural contexts – especially in Africa – where developmental science has focused the least on its impact to child and adolescent attachment security and socio-emotional adjustment.

An began exploring this theme during her time at the University of Pennsylvania as a master’s student, where she studied cultural comparisons between Chinese and Nor American children and their social relationships.

These differences in the behaviors and how they are interpreted in cultures were among her focus areas.

Contrary character trait

An’s research findings in the Global South indicate shyness is often appreciated as a high value trait. In many western countries, shyness is perceived – and often validated – as a negative quality.

“Being shy is usually interpreted [in western cultures] as an incompetent behavior. You may not be assertive, take opportunities or speak up for yourself,” An said.

Being shy demonstrates modesty and respectfulness toward other people in the Global South context – other high value personality attributes.

An found individual and interpersonal character traits – like shyness or extroversion – can serve as both risk and protective factors during childhood development.

“For example, inhibited fearful children may be more prone to develop anxiety symptoms, but they are also more sensitive to social cues and relationships which can lead them to become well-functioning, respectful and empathetic people,” An explains. 

Emphasizing childhood research and finding ways to better collaborate with local researchers is one step toward making sure data is interpreted accurately so more children’s voices are heard.

“When I was doing my Ph.D. my advisor had broad research interests. In collaboration with several universities and [across] disciplines we studied how people contextualize children’s social competence in places like Nepal, Mozambique and in Mexico,” she explains.

An discovered similarities between parents and children from Mozambique and parents and children in Uganda and other African countries.

“We tried to interview parents and educators to see what they thought – rather than just doing questionnaires – and we heard a lot of interesting things,” she said.

“These parent interview findings shared some similarities with the Chinese studies in terms of the emphasis on children’s modesty, obedience and interdependence on family members. The participants frequently mentioned the role of siblings and extended families in parenting, which is different from many U.S.-specific ideas about how parenting should be,” she says.

Family dynamics across various cultures

Exploring cultural differences provides a way to better understand and interpret family relationships and dynamics.

She says more research is needed to identify patterns and provide context when working with youngsters and their families who live in or grew up in the Global South.

“Close relationships may bring extra support or could be extra hurtful. In what situations does a certain factor introduce risk and in what situations is the same factor seen as strength? How can we minimize the risk and maximize the strength related to a specific factor,” An posits.

An currently teaches a class called Developmental Risk and Resilience, which explores the factors that contribute to children’s adjustment in a challenging childhood environment, such as poverty or trauma.

“Family and culture can contribute, as can how extended family – not just Mother and Father – can help and step in when the nuclear family is not functioning. The cultural lens is useful for families and children to interpret their own experiences,” she says.

An’s goal is to incorporate a local definition of children’s social competence, and how local parenting practices – including extended family dynamics and communities – impact “…children’s understanding of their social environment, skills and adjustment in the world with other people.”

“My work in this cross cultural context has influenced my thinking about how to incorporate variables such as culture and how to develop context-specific measurements. How psychological theories and interventions for families and children translate to African countries and to the Global South in general. How can we help children around the world to thrive,” An says.

Spotlight Recipient

Danming An

Assistant Professor

Article By:

Melinda Rizzo