Diane J. Willis Early Career Award winner: Paula Fite, PhD
By Paula Fite, PhD
We know that there are a host of factors that can contribute to youth maladjustment; however, not all children who are exposed to a particular factor will go on to experience difficulties, which makes it extremely difficult to know when and how to intervene. My research has and will continue to focus on the influence of individual factors (i.e., temperament, biological predispositions), social relationships (i.e., parents and peers), and environmental factors (i.e., neighborhood) on the developmental progression of child and adolescent problem behavior. The goal of this research is to provide a better understanding of the unique pathways that result in aggression, delinquency, and substance use in order to inform targeted prevention and intervention strategies.
Our research lab, the KU Child Behavior Lab, includes several graduate and undergraduate research assistants that are integrally involved with a number of different research projects that are centered on factors that contribute to the development of problem behavior among youth. One primary topic of research for our lab concerns peer relationships in schools, with a particular focus on youth's involvement in bullying and peer victimization. One of our ongoing projects within this area of research involves a longitudinal study of more than 700 elementary school-age children examining individual and contextual factors that contribute to outcomes associated with bullying and victimization.
The lab is also interested in risk and protective factors associated with adjustment difficulties during adolescence. This line of research includes ongoing work examining how environmental characteristics (e.g., violence and neighborhood problems) and school-related factors (e.g., academic aspirations and school bonding) impact associations between negative life events/circumstances and problem behavior (e.g., aggression, sexual activity, substance use, depression, delinquency) among samples of predominantly Latino, inner city adolescents.
Further, we know that social relationships play an integral role in child development, and there is a large literature supporting the influence of parents and peers on various psychosocial outcomes. However, the role of siblings in the development of behavioral difficulties is often overlooked. We are in the process of coding observations of sibling and parent-child interactions in a sample of youth between the ages of 10 and 17 to better understand the influences of both parents and siblings on child and adolescent adjustment.
Finally, aggression is associated with a range of problem behaviors, including substance use. Although research has consistently indicated that aggression and substance use commonly co-occur, the pathophysiology of this association remains unclear. Our lab is currently involved in a large project examining the unique and interactive effects of genetic (e.g., Monoamine Oxidase A, or MAOA, gene ) and environmental (e.g., childhood trauma and negative life events) influences on the comorbidity of aggression and substance use. This research includes studies with both humans and animals as part of the Consortium for Translation Research on Aggression and Drug Abuse (ConTRADA) at the University of Kansas.
I look forward to seeing how the results of these current studies will inform the next steps of our research. It is hoped that within the next five years we will be able to begin applying the knowledge gained from these research projects to the development and refinement of more targeted prevention and intervention strategies that can then be empirically evaluated for their efficacy and effectiveness.
Paula Fite, PhD, is an associate professor in the clinical child psychology program at the University of Kansas. She obtained her PhD from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2007. Fite's research focuses on the etiology and developmental progression of child and adolescent problem behavior, including aggression, delinquency, and substance use. Her research has been funded by various agencies and foundations, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Kansas State Department of Education.