Sophie Russell standing in early learning room
‘Reminiscing conversations’ earns PhD student a national scholarship

‘Reminiscing conversations’ earns PhD student a national scholarship

‘Reminiscing conversations’ earns PhD student a national scholarship

Research being undertaken by a PhD candidate in Psychology which aims to develop a clinical intervention for childhood anxiety and depression has been recognised with a highly sought-after national scholarship.

Sophie Russell is the recipient of an Australian Rotary Health/Josephine Margaret Redfern and Ross Edward Redfern PhD Scholarship in Mental Health valued at around $100,000 (approx. $29,000 a year) over the course of Sophie’s candidacy until mid 2023.

Recently accredited as a registered psychologist, Sophie works within the Family, Learning and Interaction (FLINT) team at Early Start, and conducts research on parent-child ‘reminiscing conversations’ and associations with family mental health.

'Reminiscing conversations' are the everyday conversations parents and children have about things that they have experienced (e.g. "remember when we went to grandma's and you were upset?"). These conversations may offer a unique way for children to learn about their emotions and make meaning from experience, as scaffolded by their parents in conversation.

Sophie’s research aims to understand more about these processes, in order to develop a clinical intervention targeted at families with children experiencing anxiety and depression.

Head of the School of Psychology at UOW, Professor Peter Caputi, said Sophie’s research would prove to be “very impactful” and feed directly into the overall community.

Professor Caputi praised the great collaboration between researchers like Sophie and Early Start. He made particular mention of the Director of the Wollongong Infant Learning Lab and leader of the FLINT Research Theme at Early Start, Associate Professor Jane Herbert, who has been a significant mentor for Sophie. Sophie is also co-supervised by clinical psychologist Dr Amy Bird, who is now based at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, making this research project a valuable international collaboration.

Sophie’s research focuses on the way we speak to children, rather than just what we say.

“This is one way in which parent mental health could be associated with children’s emotional development. If we can help improve family wellbeing, we can potentially disrupt the transgenerational transmission of mental health difficulties,” she said.

The first study in this research will look at how parent mental health symptoms over time is associated with child wellbeing and the quality of reminiscing conversations. This study uses a very large dataset of 2,000 parent-child pairs from the general population, and will be the first to examine parent mental health with reminiscing conversations.

The second study will focus on the conversations occurring in families experiencing mental health difficulties. This research will examine how parents share family stories with their children as well as talking about future situations. As anxiety tends to focus on upcoming events, this study will have special insight into how this could relate to childhood disorders.

Sophie said once we understand how these ideas relate, the final study will develop a reminiscing intervention to support families with children experiencing mental health difficulties.

Sophie completed a Bachelor of Psychology with First Class Honours in 2016, and worked in the mental health sector before continuing onto postgraduate studies.

She will be required to address Rotary groups about her latest research on certain occasions over the term of her scholarship.

Upon having her PhD conferred, Sophie’s name will be added to Rotary’s Honour Board which lists its graduated scholars.

What is FLINT?

Parent-child interactions provide the primary social learning context for children. The FLINT research theme at Early Start brings together clinical, developmental, and educational staff and research methods to better understand the ways in which parental mental health and wellbeing is associated with the way parents play and talk with their children. One of FLINT’s key research aims to understand and adapt existing evidence-based interventions, such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, to better meet the needs of high-risk families, and to foster parent-child attachment bonds.