Every parent wants their child to grow up to be successful and prosperous. Recently, this desire has been manifested in the immense popularity of toys, videos and literature promising to provide “cognitive stimulation” for children. Indeed, many parents would be glad to fork over any amount of cash for solar system mobiles and wallpaper with the periodic table on it if it would help their child win a Nobel prize one day.
In How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, he explains why teaching perseverance and conscientiousness to a child can be even more important than getting them the latest Baby Einstein videos.
One way to measure the quality of one’s childhood is to use the “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE) questionnaire, which measures how many traumatic events someone has experienced during their childhood. These traumatic experiences include things like direct abuse, such as physical or sexual abuse and emotional neglect, as well as other kinds of household dysfunction, such as a separated family, mental illness or addiction.
High ACE scores, which indicate traumatic childhoods, correlate with behavioral problems later on. For example, students with high ACE scores find it more difficult to concentrate in class and also suffer from an inability move past disappointments. They are also more likely to engage in bullying.
High ACE scores can also contribute to juvenile delinquency. A study of detainees at a juvenile detention center found that 84 percent of detainees had undergone at least two serious childhood traumas and that the majority had experienced at least six.
Alas, the effects of childhood trauma do not end after adolescence: high ACE scores correlate to both mental and physical health problems in adulthood. For example, those who scored high on the ACE are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking and drug abuse in adulthood.
Even if someone does not engage in these risky behaviors, high ACE scores themselves imply a significantly increased likelihood of suffering from ischemic heart disease and various other chronic disorders.
These physical and mental health problems in adulthood show us that childhood trauma can have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences for those children affected. Traumatic childhood experiences cause both behavioral and health problems that persist even in adulthood. We’ve now seen that traumatic events can negatively impact children’s lives severely, but how exactly does this happen?
The first answer lies in our physiology. When we encounter stressful events, we undergo a biological stress reaction governed by three cerebral structures: hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal. This cerebral trio, which forms the HPA axis, releases certain hormones into our bloodstream in times of stress that result in a variety of stress reactions.
These stress reactions – for example, the churning in your gut, a fast heart rate, or clammy hands – developed via evolution as a way to help us flee predators and survive in the wild. For example, a faster heart rate might help circulate blood more efficiently so you can outrun danger.
However, these stress reactions are in some respects ill-suited for the demands of modern society. Whereas evolution sculpted these stress-reactions to help us manage short-term stress such as fight-or-flight situations, modern life presents us with long-term stressors, such as financial stress or damaged social relationships.
Our body’s stress reactions don’t differentiate between the short-term stress of fleeing a tiger and the long-term stress of indebtedness, and the sustained stress reaction caused by the latter can have serious health consequences. In fact, sustained high levels of stress can damage both the body and mind – especially in young people.
Indeed, young people suffer especially badly from chronic stress, which takes a huge toll on the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation: the prefrontal cortex. Chronic stress wears down the prefrontal cortex, resulting in a lack of impulse control, which can lead to high-risk or adverse behaviors. These behaviors become especially present in adolescence when there is more opportunity and temptation to engage in behaviors like unprotected sex, drug use, dropping out of school or drunk driving.
These behaviors, while dangerous in themselves, have especially drastic consequences for the young: a jail sentence or disease can completely and permanently alter one’s life trajectory for the worse.
While it is of course impossible to protect a child from stress completely, there is a simple remedy to the negative effects of stress on children: attentive, nurturing parenting. In fact, studies have shown that even in stressful environments, a mother can almost completely compensate for her child’s physiological stress factors by being attentive and nurturing. This was evidenced by a lack of stress hormones in the urine of children with such mothers.
Furthermore, this attentive, nurturing style of parenting creates a secure attachment between the parents and their children. A secure attachment is considered the healthiest, most well-adapted attachment between parent and child, in which the parent serves as a “safe base” for the child as he explores the surrounding world.
Secure attachment is beneficial for a child’s development: for example, children with secure attachments tend to be more intrepid and self-reliant than others with less sensitive guardians.
In fact, the benefits of sensitive, attentive parenting and the resulting secure attachment continue throughout life: securely attached children are more likely to graduate from high school and, in general, tend to make friends and form social networks and thus lead more socially competent lives.
Thankfully, parents can utilize interventions or therapy in order to help them become more sensitive and attentive with their children, thereby creating secure attachments and thus lessening the physiological effects of stress.
This was demonstrated by a study in which therapists worked simultaneously with at-risk parents and their infant children to improve attachment relationships and shield them from the adverse effects of trauma. This form of child–parent psychotherapy was indeed successful in helping parents form secure attachments with their children.
So while it’s impossible for parents to ensure a totally stress-free environment for their children, they can at least protect them from its negative impact by adopting a sensitive, attentive style of parenting.
Check out my related post: Should we all go back to thinking like children?