Professor of Psychology Gordon Harold, also Treasurer of ACAMH, has spent his career exploring the many influences – family, genetic and parental – on children’s development.
Gordon’s career in psychology had a somewhat unlikely start. As a history student in Ireland and an international track athlete he took a year out to visit the USA on a sports scholarship.
While he was there he was first introduced to psychology which reconfigured his academic interests.
“I also realised, quite quickly, that while I thought I was a top class runner I was actually quite a mediocre one after running against some of the best athletes in the world.
“That forced me to reconsider my original career path in which I was going to win the Olympics and retire aged 22, but that’s what brought me into psychology.”
Gordon stayed in the USA for 10 years and completed a PhD, he said working in the USA introduced him to the science of psychology that was emerging from the conceptual side of the discipline.
In the late 90s Gordon moved to Cardiff University after being offered a lectureship there.
Gordon’s research has spent his career investigating what helps children to develop well – looking into the role of genetics, the family unit, parenting and the intertwined influence of all these factors.
“I would challenge anybody to go past the family as a site of origin in terms of children’s development, be it genetic or pre-natal or more direct early rearing experiences.
“My focus on family relationships specifically was sourced from trying to better understand the relative role of genetic factors then specific aspects of the rearing environment and to get past the definition of family influences on children as just being parenting, I thought it was likely a bit more complex than the mother-child relationship.”
Gordon now works at the University of Sussex within the School of Psychology as the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Professor of Child and Adolescent Mental Health and is Director of the Rudd Centre for Adoption Research and Practice
His involvement with the Rudd centre emerged from questions around the relative role of genetics and early rearing experiences.
Many studies of early childhood experiences and their effects on child development have involved children who are genetically related to their parents.
“It’s quite a challenge to be able to say that we know rearing environments matter irrespective of genes and the only way we can do that is have a sample of children who are genetically unrelated to their rearing parents, that’s where an adoption sample comes in.”
As adopted children often spend time in care before they find an adoption placement, a process which may involve trauma, Gordon turned his attention to children adopted at conception – or born via IVF.
“Myself and colleagues had developed a set of studies where children are not genetically related but were adopted at conception, or at birth.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve looked at these questions around rearing and child mental health, and we’ve shown consistently that poor rearing experiences or positive rearing experiences work in the way you’d predict whether you’re genetically related or not.”
While much research in this area focuses on single aspects of early childhood experiences and their effects on development Gordon said these factors tend to work together.
“I research these factors, including economic disadvantage, adult mental health, interparental relationships and parenting in what’s called a cascade of influences, rather than single factors, how these things work together in a cumulative way to affect children’s mental health.
“I look at how they put children, not just at risk in terms of their own mental health, but in terms of next generation effects how those children go on to replicate patterns based on their experiences.”
Gordon said some of his proudest moments have been interactions with parents when he sees the real-world effects of this kind of research.
“Recently I was asked a question after a talk I gave by a mother who said ‘would your research suggest that the parenting myself and my husband provide for our now 18-year-old adopted child really matters? And that it matters independent of the genes the child is carrying with him?
“I said that’s what the evidence would allow us to conclude now. Where our evidence can inform in a real-world sense the day-to-day lives of parents who are wholly invested in helping their child, despite the difficulties parents are confronted, with that’s a career highlight.”
Gordon is a relatively new face on the ACAMH board, after being invited to join as Treasurer in 2015 by then-Chair Professor Kathy Sylva.
As well as overseeing the organisation’s accounts His role offers the opportunity to inform frontline staff on how research can inform practice which can benefit children.
“I think ACAMH in the last 12 months has gone through quite radical change for the better in my view.
“There are few organisations that are as directed towards engaging with frontline practice and practitioners in terms of evidence-led guidance and resources.”