As the father of two young children, I’d sleep a lot easier at night if I could believe in the adage that that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Every time the little tykes suffer some injury or setback, you hope as a parent that it will somehow toughen them up and stand them in good stead for later life.
Recently, however, the scientific world has been giving my faith in this nugget of wisdom a serious test. Everywhere I look researchers are reporting that childhood traumas may actually leave children more vulnerable in later life, not less.
Take for example a study published in May by Stephen Rosenman and Bryan Rodgers from the Australian National University. The two researchers interviewed more than 7,400 adults in their twenties, forties and sixties, asking them a range of questions about their upbringing to age 16 and about their personality and difficulties now.
Their questions revealed that children who suffered more adversity had an increased risk of neuroticism (susceptibility to negative emotional states) as adults, and to a lesser extent it could also trigger inhibited behaviour.
As the researchers say in their article, the idea that childhood experiences have a psychological impact in adulthood isn’t new. It’s the basis of much of the psychiatry and psychology we’re all familiar with. Still, their results, published in May in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, turned up some interesting details. The findings seemed to apply to men and women equally, and lasted throughout their life, the researchers said. They also found that the single factor most likely to have a negative impact was a mother with a psychological illness.
On a positive note, the Australian research found that people who could recall a happy childhood in the midst of adversity seemed to be less affected by negative consequences. The ability to maintain good relationships with friends and others also helped lessen the impact.
The work by Rosenman and Rodgers adds to a growing body of scientific research that highlights the links between childhood adversity and later psychological fragility. Another scientist who recently contributed to that is Kim Drake from the University of Leicester. In a recent study, she found that children who suffer hard knocks tend to be more gullible once they’ve grown up.
Drake, a doctoral student, undertook her study with Professor Ray Bull and Julian Boon of the Leicester school of psychology. They based their research on something called Interrogative Suggestibility, which is a measure of how the experience of life events can influence a person’s susceptibility to leading questions.
To test this they used a method that’s standard in the forensic setting, involving the interviewer reading a made-up story describing a fictional robbery. Straight after telling the story, the researchers tested the subject’s ability to recall the narrative. Next, they asked the participants to fill out three personality questionnaires that took nearly an hour to complete.
One aim of these surveys was to distract the participants, taking their mind off the story they’d just been told. After the delay, Drake began interrogating. “I asked them 20 questions, 15 of which were leading, so implying an answer, based upon the narrative. From that I obtained a score for how many leading questions were yielded to the first time around.”
She then told the 60 participants they’d got some of their answers wrong and that they needed to go through the questions again. From this she got a score for how many leading questions were yielded to after the feedback, as well as any changes in answer.
“We found that people who had experienced a high amount of adversity... were far more suggestible - susceptible to leading questions, negative feedback and moreover, that they were more easily manipulated if the setting was unfamiliar to them,” she says. The paper is under consideration at the journal Psychology, Crime and Law.
In Drake’s study, adverse life experiences included serious personal illnesses or injuries, miscarriage, difficulties at work, bullying at school, being a victim of crime, parental divorce and death of a family member.
None of this is particularly reassuring for me as a parent, but the Leicester researchers do offer some hope. Children can learn positive or negative ways of dealing with adversity from the example of their parents, Drake said. “If the parents are matter-of-fact about negative occurrences and are ‘happy-go-lucky’ then the children may emulate that.”
This chimes with the findings from Australia, Stephen Rosenman notes. “Our own tendencies to neuroticism or negative emotional states do have a negative impact on our children,” he says - but all is not doom and gloom.
For a start, the degree to which we have an impact on our children’s psychology when they reach adulthood isn’t overwhelming. Rosenman says teaching them to build and maintain good relationships is a key mitigating factor. “That’s something we should encourage,” he says.
For us parents, then, perhaps that’s the lesson. It’s not so much a case of that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger - but whatever makes us stronger, can help make our children stronger, too.