Painful events during childhood – such as death of a family member, serious injury or illness, and physical or sexual assault – can potentially have long-lasting and significant negative impacts on later adult physical and mental functioning. Even more stressful for children are ongoing patterns that persist over years, conditions like parental emotional deprivation and rejection, and deprivation of basic needs like food and shelter. The consequences of such experiences were documented in The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the late 1990s. The ACES test screened for childhood trauma in ten areas: Physical Abuse, Verbal Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Emotional Deprivation, Physical Deprivation, Addiction, Domestic Violence, Incarcerated Family Member, Divorce/Abandonment, and Mental Illness. The presence of such traumas was highly positively correlated with medical and emotional problems later in life: Smoking; alcoholism; IV drug use; obesity; chronic anxiety; panic attacks; early and unprotected intercourse; depression. The consequences of childhood traumas are often carried into adulthood.
But – and it’s a big but – there is another side to the coin.
There is also solid evidence that early experience with stress – in moderation – can help one become more resilient, hardy, and able to maintain a sense of control and confidence when confronted with difficult events. For example, Larissa Dooley and colleagues found that – compared to adults who report highly stressful early lives – adults who report moderate levels of stressors in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, describe their current lives as satisfying, low in psychological discomfort, low in PTSD symptoms, and generally strong in day-to-day functioning. Again, we’re talking about the advantages of moderate stress in early life. Conversely, indulging children and protecting them from exposure to moderate levels of reality-based stress can be harmful because the kids never learn coping skills, which later puts them at a disadvantage in dealing with the inevitable reality of challenges imposed by daily adult living. Thus, shielding children and adolescents by exposing them only to minimal stress may be every bit as harmful in the long run as subjecting them to devastating stress.
Here we are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with increasing racial and tribal violence, and our media filled with negative reports of more and more people seeking counseling for anxiety and depression. Dire warnings are also issued for the psychological damage being done to our children, as the pandemic causes disruptions in school and other daily activities. These and other stressors in society are associated with increased emergency mental health interventions for children, including self-injury, suicide, and low levels of mental well-being.
Whereas it is important to be aware of stressors imposed on young people, these worrisome predictions of psychological doom seem to overlook something important: The role of parents, teachers, and other adult role models in helping children learn that experiencing stressful events does not automatically mean defeat; young people can profit by learning how to cope with adversity and maintain some control and stability in the face of stress.
When parents teach their children these life lessons, and when parents by their own example show children how to confront – not avoid – challenges, the parents are providing future adults with “counseling” that will serve them well in the future. Highly stressful events like our current pandemic and social-media interactions need not inevitably lead to anxiety, depression, and other psychological difficulties. Parents who are wise, strong, stable, and involved in their children’s lives in authoritative – not authoritarian – ways are appropriately preparing children with lessons for meeting future stressors. And what are some of these lessons? Just because you feel or think you are a loser does not make you a loser; just because you are bullied does not make you a reject; just because you are afraid does not make you a bad person. These events should not make you feel guilty and ashamed because your thoughts do not make you good or bad; they are natural for you and part of what makes you human. You do not have to feel guilty about your thoughts or feelings. You have some thoughts from time to time that worry you, but those thoughts and feelings do not define you. Your freely-chosen behaviors define you.
These lessons, of course, also apply to adults, who must learn to say: “I am not likely to get out of my depression by thinking or feeling my way out. I can’t expect or demand that others pad the corners of my world for me. The past happened and can’t be denied. I need to function in my present without being dominated by my past. I must accept the reality of my here-and-now, and be accountable for my actions. I must identify my values, purposes, goals, humility, and empathy. At some point, I need to bring my behaviors into alignment with my core values. If I am not living corresponding with my value systems, then it is not realistic for me to be happy.”