Inquiring Minds

Why Children Go Missing

When "missing child" appears in the headlines, the story is frequently one of abduction, often with tragic consequences. Yet as heartbreaking as these stories are, the issue of missing children is more complicated than news reports suggest. Relatively few missing children are abducted, and understanding how children become missing--and why--is a first step in addressing the problem. A U.S. Department of Justice study co-authored by UNH researcher David Finkelhor sheds light on the issue. "The bad news about missing children is that there are a lot of them," Finkelhor says. The good news is that all but a tiny fraction are returned to their homes--usually fairly quickly.

The study covered a one-year period (1999), during which 1.3 million children throughout the U.S. were "missing from their caretakers." About 797,500 of those children were reported to the police as missing. By the time the study data were collected, only 2,500 (0.2 percent) were still missing. Almost half of all the missing children were runaways or thrown-aways--children forced from their homes by caretakers. Most of the others were missing for "benign explanations," such as communication failures or unexpected delays, or because they were lost or injured. About 12 percent had actually been abducted--9 percent by family members and 3 percent by nonfamily members.

"The missing-children problem is widely misunderstood," explains Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at UNH. "There are many different reasons why children can be missing, including some very harmless ones. Stranger abductions are just a tiny portion. The problem is in being able to diagnose the serious cases quickly."

In many cases, finding a missing child is just the first step in addressing a larger problem, Finkelhor says. "It doesn't necessarily help a runaway child to return her to a home where she is being maltreated," he points out. "Nor does it necessarily help to recover a child from one parent and send him to another, if the custody tug-of-war is just going to continue. Missing children episodes are generally signs of other underlying problems that need to be addressed if we really want to help the children."

Patterns in the Nano World

Karsten Pohl begins an experiment by depositing a layer of silver one atom thick on a substrate of the metal ruthenium. Then he sprinkles the metal with sulfur atoms. That's when the fun begins. The sulfur atoms hop around, vying for position like children in a game of musical chairs, pushing the silver atoms out of the way and settling down in spaces they've made. With images from a scanning tunneling microscope, Pohl can see the holes appear in the silver film as the sulfur atoms find their places, finally settling into a distinct pattern.

That's why these materials fascinate this materials physicist. Like veins on a leaf, stripes on a zebra or frost ferns on a pane of glass, the pattern is produced not by the human hand, but by nature itself.

Pohl, working at Sandia National Labs at the time, was the first to observe the patterns produced in this two-dimensional nano-world. His findings appeared in the journal Nature in 1999.

"It's very beautiful," Pohl notes. "When you start mixing these atoms, you can just watch these patterns form. You can see the holes vibrate, and it looks like they're breathing." With a scanning tunneling microscope, Pohl has captured images resembling knitting, lace, herringbone cloth, sheets of egg carton, or rows of equilateral triangles measuring exactly seven atoms on a side. The instrument--not to be confused with an optical microscope--generates images with resolution down to the level of individual atoms.

Aside from their beauty, Pohl's nanostructures could lead to new technologies for storing and processing information, sensing and deactivating hazardous materials, or even creating a quantum computer--a super-fast computer that could process information by capitalizing on the behavior of groups of atoms. The key to these applications would be placement of different substances in the holes in the lattice-work.

Pohl, who came to UNH in 2000, has just received a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. He will use the money to coax atoms to organize themselves in striking geometric patterns and to coax high school students to develop an interest in science.

Next year Pohl will offer a course for high school teachers, preparing them to present the latest findings in physics research in their classes. And some of the most motivated teens in those high school science classes will have an opportunity to participate in research at UNH through a new summer program. During preliminary work with teachers over the past year, Pohl has increasingly come to admire the craft of teaching high school science. "Our students at the university want to be here, but in high school science class, the teacher has to win them over every day," he explains.

Back in the lab, Pohl hopes to learn why the nanostructures form in a metal film, how stable they are, and how they can be manipulated. Only then could engineers put these materials to practical use. He is also constructing equipment that will allow him to heat his materials to very high temperatures. He hopes to be the first to observe a two-dimensional solid in the process of melting.

What happens when an individual atom melts? "There are some wild theories out there," Pohl notes. "But nobody has seen it."

Emotional Intelligence

The next time your child loses his temper or starts to cry, think twice about how you react. What you do and say could have a lasting impact on the child's ability to handle his emotions later in life.

In a study by UNH psychology professor Rebecca Warner and Ines Kroll '02G, a correlation was found between how parents responded to their children's sadness and anger and how those children performed on emotional intelligence tests. Subjects who reported that their parents helped them deal with their negative emotions were found to have higher levels of emotional intelligence than those subjects who reported that their parents often dismissed their emotions.

The study on parents' behavior was conducted in the form of a survey given to 291 UNH students. They were asked to recall how their parents typically reacted to their negative emotions when they were children. The subjects' emotional intelligence was then assessed using a test developed by UNH psychology professor Jack Mayer.

Mayer's test is based on his theory that emotional intelligence is an ability that can be measured. The test assesses abilities such as recognizing facial expressions, perceiving and identifying emotions, reasoning and solving problems based on emotional experience, and effectively managing emotions.

The study looked at two types of parenting behavior: emotion coaching and emotion dismissing. Emotion coaching involves acknowledging children's emotions and helping them to understand what they are feeling and how to deal with those feelings. Emotion dismissing, on the other hand, might take the form of ignoring a child's emotions, telling the child that having negative emotions is bad or unacceptable, and viewing negative emotions as harmful.

The study found a strong correlation between high levels of emotion dismissing and low emotional intelligence. This suggests that parents who react negatively to their children's emotions may have the greatest impact on their children's emotional intelligence.

Men reported more emotion dismissing from their parents, especially from their fathers. In particular, males reported a lot of emotion dismissing when they felt sad as children. "For boys, sadness was not OK," says Warner. Male students whose primary caregivers were male reported the highest levels of emotion dismissing. "It's possible that the reason that males grow up to have a lower level of emotional intelligence and more difficulty managing emotions is that male children experience more emotion dismissing," Warner observes.

She cautions that the study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between parenting behavior and children's emotional intelligence. Other factors, such as a child's personality, can affect parenting behavior, she says. And emotional intelligence may be at least partially an innate ability. "We want to be careful that we don't get into parent blaming," Warner says. "We don't know yet how much influence parents have." However, she says, this study does suggest that emotional intelligence may be something that children can be taught.

So what can parents learn from this study? "Don't be too quick to dismiss," says Warner. "Don't invalidate children's emotions. I think children find that confusing and upsetting." Instead, offer understanding and help the child find ways to feel better. It might make a big difference later on.

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