Susan Branje on RADAR
‘Parents are not always responsible for their child’s behaviour’
Text: Silvijn Stokman
Photo: Bram Belloni
When she was just a child herself, Susan Branje (1973) already knew she wanted to work in child development. She had soon made her choice: she would study developmental psychology in Nijmegen. There, she obtained her PhD with honours in 2003, studying adolescent relationships. Around that time, she also joined Utrecht University, where she currently leads the large-scale RADAR study.
RADAR attempts to draw conclusions about the role of the environment in children’s growing up by collecting data on people over a long period of time. The focus here is on adolescence. Every day, this kind of research brings us a little closer to answering the age-old question: do we become who we are because of our genes, or our upbringing? Is it nature or nurture?
The RADAR study focuses on using so-called longitudinal data. What does that mean?
‘It involves following people over a longer period of time. A lot of research surveys a group of participants only once. They look at how parents are raising their children right now, or at a parent’s behaviour towards their child at that moment. Instead, we study whether parents are raising their children the same way they were raised, for example. You actually also want to know how things were with those parents in the past, and whether you see similar patterns in that, which we call transfer.’
Is it not easier to simply ask parents now how they were raised in the past?
‘When you question that retrospectively, people’s memories are coloured by their current experiences. For example, parents may want to be like their child, or mainly remember negative or positive things from the past. That is why longitudinal data is very important here, to see if there is transmission and when exactly it takes place. Also, you simply need multiple measurement moments to measure a child’s entire development.
There are not many such long-term studies in the world, but in the Netherlands, there are a few at the CID. We are among the world’s leaders in that respect.’
‘There are not many such long-term studies in the world, but in the Netherlands, there are a few at the CID. We are among the world’s leaders in that respect.’
Are there any drawbacks to this method?
‘In terms of content, there is not much to find fault with, because it does indeed provide a wealth of data. The drawbacks are mainly of a practical nature; it is difficult to sustain such large longitudinal data sets. In the Netherlands, social sciences – unlike the other sciences – do not have large long-term grants. So, you have to ensure funding over and over again. Unfortunately, this also makes it harder to keep participants involved in your studies. That is why you have to invest in maintaining a relationship with them.
When we started this research, our very first respondents were around 12 years old. Now, many of them have children of their own, who are also involved in the study. We are happy to have such loyal participants.’
What do participants do within the study?
‘We at RADAR mainly look at experiences, i.e., how people, their family members, and friends self-report about their relationships and behaviour, and how these are transmitted between generations. So, that is in the form of recurring questionnaires. But we also do home visits, for example, subjecting participants to tasks and making videos of parent-child interactions. We also collect genetic information from the respondents.’
What is the most striking thing that has come out of the research so far?
‘One of my PhD students looked at the transmission from parent to child of psychopathology, i.e., the extent to which people felt depressed or anxious. We see a clear correlation between how parent and child feel, but exactly how they influence each other is more complex than you might expect. Parental psychopathological symptoms are not only transmitted directly from parent to child, but children also influence their parents’ behaviour. This in turn contributes to the transmission of psychopathology. So, it is not a one-way process from parent to child, but rather seems to be a complex interplay in which they constantly influence each other.
For example, teenagers provoke many changes in the parent-child relationship. So, in this, parents are not always directly responsible for their children’s behaviour; rather, they respond to their children. But by responding appropriately at the time, they can redirect teenagers’ behaviour.’
‘Parents are not always directly responsible for their children’s behaviour; rather, it seems to be a complex interplay in which they constantly influence each other.’
You have just got to the children of your first responders. Is it not a shame that the CID is coming to an end?
‘Yes, that is definitely a shame. We would like to have more time, for example, to merge all the data from multiple CID studies. Fortunately, most research projects will continue as usual. That also applies to the RADAR study – we have actually just started. There are still many measurements ahead and the coming years of our respondents’ lives are particularly interesting to follow in terms of development.
One of our goals is to answer the nature-nurture question. We still have a long way to go before we reach that point. And yes, on the one hand, you try to give a clear answer to this question, but on the other hand, exposing its immense complexity is also important. It is becoming increasingly clear that it is both – nature and nurture. It remains a constant interaction.’
Susan Branje is professor at Utrecht University.
This article is part of a New Scientist special issue about the Consortium on Individual Development, that will appear in September 2023.