WKU Researcher Empowers Students to Understand Human Emotional Development Through Infant Studies

How early in your life did you begin to learn how to handle stress and anxiety? Did your parents’ interactions with you in childhood affect your emotional development? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly one in five Americans struggle with an anxiety disorder–a statistic that has researchers and students at WKU pushing boundaries to answer such questions. Dr. Diane Lickenbrock and her team at WKU’s Children and Families Lab are leading groundbreaking research that suggests we begin developing skills to regulate our emotions as early as infancy–and that interactions with our parents are crucial in this development.

‘Emotion Regulation’ in infants under 12 months

What is emotion regulation? This term describes the human ability to control and modify emotions (such as fear, anger and sadness). The ability to regulate emotions is key to all basic aspects of modern life: maintaining friendships, growing professionally, building healthy romantic partnerships, etc.

Dr. Lickenbrock’s research at WKU examines emotional regulation and how one’s life context, such as early parent-child relationships, affects the development of this skill. In the Children and Families Lab, Dr. Lickenbrock recruits parents with infants aged 4, 6 and 8 months who attend focus groups and perform certain play tasks that allow her team to observe key parent-infant interactions. She has trained over 50 undergraduates and 10 graduate students to assist her in performing this research, some of whom have found their passion in this work and gone on to complete independent studies in the field.

Dr. Diane Lickenbrock and a student preparing for a laboratory visit that involves recording play tasks between an infant and its parent for later analysis. Dr. Lickenbrock has trained over 60 students to support her research, many of whom have gone on to lead independent projects.

The Role of Fatherhood

The groundbreaking results of Dr. Lickenbrock’s studies are what have inspired many students to pursue this work in their own careers. Traditionally, researchers have found that infants’ nurturing interactions with mothers, and playful interactions with fathers, are parallel in their emotional development. Dr. Lickenbrock’s work is challenging these norms.

“Surprisingly, some preliminary evidence suggests that a father’s nurturing behaviors and a mother’s playful behaviors matter more in emotional development than previously believed,” she says. Thus, her work supports the hypothesis that there is a world of vital interactions between and infant and both parents that influence emotional development throughout life. This world of interactions, and the entire field of emotional development and regulation, is ripe for exploration by current and future students.

Physical Cues and Parenting

Because their research subjects are infants who cannot communicate verbally, Dr. Lickenbrock and her colleagues have also uncovered physical cues that indicate infant stress, including: an increase in heart rate and breathing, looking away, thumb-sucking, or playing with clothing. Dr. Lickenbrock has partnered with students to share these findings with professionals nationwide who can help parents understand these physical cues in infants and improve their parenting accordingly. This information sharing is vital for improving the emotional health of future generations.

“We are working to disseminate our research with key recommendations for helping parents better read and understand their infant’s emotions. With these recommendations, parents can optimize their interactions with infants to support development of emotional regulation skills that can having lasting effects on mental health.”

Dr. Lickenbrock and her team presenting research findings at The Society for Research in Child Development National Conference in Baltimore, Maryland (March 2019). Dr. Lickenbrock hopes that sharing her research findings with the right audience can empower parents to detect and mediate infant stress, improving the emotional development of future generations.
Left: Ashley Quigley (graduate student, M.S. Psychology-Psychological Sciences program)
Middle: Dr. Diane Lickenbrock
Right: Mequeil Howard

Leading the way for future researchers

Dr. Lickenbrock has trained dozens of students, particularly women, and welcomes all students with an interest to explore the opportunities WKU can offer. She has studied over 95 families to date and is continually recruiting more families to grow her studies, as well as more students to support the development of her work.

Mentorship by Dr. Lickenbrock has prepared WKU students for successful careers in a variety of fields. “One of the best aspects of my work at WKU is mentoring students in the Children and Families Lab,” she says. “I strive to give them experiences that will help put them on the trajectory to achieve their passions. A number of students in the lab have been accepted to graduate programs (clinical and mental health counseling, psychological science, social work), doctoral programs (psychology, physical therapy, occupational therapy) and medical school. All of the research that we do in the laboratory would not be possible without them!”

Dr. Diane Lickenbrock and her team at WKU’s Children and Families Lab. Dr. Lickenbrock has trained over 60 undergraduate and graduate students in her field of emotional development and regulation, empowering many of them to pursue their own careers in research.

Dr. Lickenbrock’s research has been supported by a KBRIN IDeA award (NIGMS: 8P0GM103436), a WKU RCAP Level-1 Grant, and an Ogden QTAG award.

Mequeil’s research has been supported by a WKU FUSE award (2019-2020) and an Honors Development Grant (2019, 2020). Her research has also been supported by a KBRIN IDeA award (NIGMS: 8P0GM103436) and a WKU RCAP Level-1 grant awarded to her mentor, Dr. Lickenbrock.

To hear more about one student’s experience leading independent research under Dr. Lickenbrock, see our discussion with Mequeil Howard here. For more information on Dr. Lickenbrock’s current research and work at the WKU Children and Families Lab, please visit the lab’s webpage or contact the lab directly at: childrenandfamilieslab@gmail.com or (270)-745-4275.