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Parents with severe trauma in childhood more likely to have children with behavioural problems

The types of childhood hardships include divorce or separation of parents, death of a parent, and emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Image: NadyaEugene via Shutterstock

SEVERE CHILDHOOD TRAUMA and stresses early in parents’ lives are linked to higher rates of behavioural health problems in their own children, a new study has found.

The types of childhood hardships include divorce or separation of parents, death of or estrangement from a parent, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, witnessing violence in the home, exposure to substance abuse in the household or parental mental illness.

“Previous research has looked at childhood trauma as a risk factor for later physical and mental health problems in adulthood, but this is the first research to show that the long-term behavioural health harms of childhood adversity extend across generations from parents to child,” lead author Dr Adam Schickedanz of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA said.

The study showed that the children of parents who themselves had four or more adverse childhood experiences were at double the risk of having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and were four times more likely to have mental health problems.

A mother’s childhood experiences had a stronger adverse effect on a child’s behavioural health than the father’s experiences, the study found.

Parents’ experiences

Parents who lived through adverse childhood experiences were more likely to report higher levels of aggravation as parents and to experience mental health problems, the researchers found.

However, these mental health and attitude factors only explained about a quarter of the association of their child’s increased behavioural health risks.

It was noted that the remainder of how the parent’s adverse childhood experiences are transmitted to their child’s behaviour deserves further study.

The findings add to the evidence supporting standardised assessment of parents for adverse childhood experiences during their child’s pediatric health visits.

“If we can identify these children who are at a higher risk, we can connect them to services that might reduce their risk or prevent behavioural health problems,” Schickedanz said.

The researchers used information from a national survey containing information from four generations of American families, including information from parents about whether they were abused, neglected or exposed to other family stressors or maltreatment while growing up.

They also examined information on their children’s behaviour problems and medical diagnoses of attention deficit disorder.

With this data, the researchers were able to find strong associations between the parents’ adversity histories and their children’s behavioural health problems, while controlling for factors such as family poverty and education level.

Schickendanz said that the next step for the researchers is to look at how resilience factors, such as the support of mentors or teachers, could offset the harms of childhood traumas.

The study was published in the Pediatrics journal.

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