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Spinoza Prize for Professor Bernet Elzinga

How can parents avoid passing on stress and mental health problems to their children? Professor of Stress-Related Psychopathology Bernet Elzinga develops simple interventions to help both parents and young people. For her research, she has been awarded the Spinoza Prize, the highest academic honour in the Netherlands.

Congratulations! When did you hear you had won the prize?

‘At a totally unexpected moment. I was walking down the corridor to discuss a lecture with someone when I got the call. I was blown away. It felt so unreal. I was so moved. It’s really special to get that kind of recognition.’

What does the prize mean to you?

‘First of all, it is recognition for our interdisciplinary work. I do want to emphasise that this has all been teamwork. We conduct complex research with a big group of researchers from different backgrounds, such as neuroscience, pedagogy, developmental psychology, clinical psychology and child and adolescent psychologists working in clinical practice. It is also recognition of the importance of the subject. Our research is about the crucial role parents play in whether stress and mental health conditions are passed from one generation to the next. This tends not to receive enough attention.’

How do you research that?

‘In the past I have conducted research on the long-term effects of emotional neglect or chronic criticism from parents. How does this impact children’s development? And how does it continue to influence adult life, such as in intimate relationships and people’s own parenting? I could not gain the insight I needed by studying one person at a time, adults looking back at their childhood. So ten years ago, we also started inviting families in so we could observe their interactions. We also look here at what happens in a child’s brain if they are criticised, for example, or complimented by a parent.’

What did that research show?

‘That emotional neglect actually has a greater impact than physical violence. If children experience frequent and chronic emotional neglect, they are at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety in adulthood. It also has a huge impact on children’s self-image and makes it harder for them to bond with their parents. This makes intimate relationships more difficult. We also see an increased risk of suicidality. So these are really chronic problems that have a longer-lasting effect.’ 

Photo: NWO

But that is not the whole story, Elzinga explains. ‘Our research in adolescents and their parents shows that the perception of young people who are depressed also plays an important role. They are quick to perceive their parents as critical or dismissive and remember criticism extra well, but if we looked objectively at the parents’ behaviour that was not always to be observed.’

How does your research help improve the treatment of these children?

These findings are important when considering interventions. We explain to parents how sensitive young people with depression are. It is incredibly important to minimise criticism and to focus on contact. We tell parents that they are not the cause of the depression but can do a lot to promote their child’s well-being.

For parents who are at their wit’s end, we have also developed the ‘Samen Sterk’ (Strong Together, Ed.) course. As young people’s care and support services are so oversubscribed, children with mental health problems are often at home. Parents sometimes have no idea what they can do to support their children. That is why we have produced the book ‘Samen Sterk’ gemaakt, based on the Samen Sterk course. And we have also developed an app with artificial intelligence. Parents can ask specific questions about the book and receive a personalised question within minutes.  We are going to research how useful this is for parents but the first reactions are very positive.’

What kind of researcher are you?

‘I have always been very driven by curiosity. I have never been that strategically minded with my career all mapped out, but have always followed my fascination for certain topics. Why is it that some people react well to stress or trauma whereas others find it much more difficult? I want to understand that better. I love bringing people together and seeking innovation in proper interdisciplinary work.’

The Spinoza Prize is 1.5 million euros. What are you going to do with the money?

‘We are going to carry on developing the interventions. With parents and young people with depression who take the Samen Sterk course, we now record daily how they feel, what is worrying them and how their contact with their child is. This helps us gain new insights into parent-child interaction and it helps parents reflect on how they respond to their child. We are keen to expand this approach to parents of adolescents with other mental health problems such as anxiety, eating problems or excessive alcohol or drug use. Those parents have lots of questions and problems. How do you deal with drug or alcohol problems? Or out-of-control irritations? We want to develop good methods to give personalised advice. To do so, we also want to collect data from everyday life. The Spinoza Prize will make it possible for us to develop simple interventions that will benefit both children and their parents.’

Text: Tom Janssen
Photo: NWO

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