Research on what are called "adverse childhood experiences" (ACEs) is showing that there is a shortlist of five things that happen to children when they are with their families that are very likely to cause them mental and physical health problems later in life. In fact, the relationship between these factors and poor outcomes is so strong that in some studies, a majority of adults with serious problems later in life have had at least two of these experiences as children.
Five Adverse Childhood Experiences:
1) Physical abuse, which means being pushed, shoved, grabbed, hit, kicked or burnt. Research on ACEs doesn't necessarily include being spanked, though when spanking is vicious or done with such anger a child fears for his safety, then that too could be consider a risk factor for later problems.
2) Sexual abuse includes any episode of indecent exposure by an adult, sexual touching or a sexual assault of any kind. Needless to say, sexual abuse can severely affect a child's trust in others, especially if she feels she is being exploited to satisfy the needs of adults who ignore her need for safety.
3) Parental psychopathology (mental illness) makes it more likely a child will also not get his needs met, or may have to play parent to his parent. This isn't necessarily bad, but when the child is burdened with the emotional care of his parent, it can have long-term consequences when providing that care interrupts the child's normal routines of going to school or spending time with peers. A parent who is mentally unwell may also not be available to his child emotionally if he is struggling with an addiction, or heavily medicated.
4) Conflict between parents also tends to create a dangerous atmosphere for kids to grow up in. In fact, a good divorce may be preferable to a home where the adults model only angry outbursts and emotional abuse. That's not a great start to teaching our kids how to form healthy long-term relationships of their own.
5) A poor parent-child relationship is the final big threat to a child's success in life. When a parent and child are in constant conflict, or the parent is aloof and emotionally withdrawn, there is a long-term consequence for children's emotional development. There may even be a tendency for these children later in life to display self-soothing behaviours like excessive drinking, drug abuse, or seeking intimacy in emotionally exploitive relationships.
Rich or poor, these adverse childhood experiences can throw a child off balance. That's because they accumulate. The cumulative risk hypothesis suggests that risk factors work together, with one factor making it more likely a child is exposed to others, much in the same way that a truant child is more likely to hang out with delinquent peers, use drugs, and become sexually active earlier. Of course, not every factor is as likely as another to ruin a child's life. Childhood abuse is actually much more likely than, say, a parent's mental illness, because it tumbles a child into a whole host of other risks that aggregate. The child is poorly socialized, poorly monitored, her emotional needs less well met, and her world full of fear.
The Solutions: The very best things we can do for our children to prevent them failing in life is to help them avoid exposure to these five toxic experiences. That means:
1) Look after yourself! Find what you need as a parent to sustain your own well-being. Find ways to decompress when tensions around the house get too much to handle and you find yourself about to yell at or hit your child. The healthier, more supported, and loved you are the more likely your child is to do well. In other words, you owe it to your child to take time away from your family and do something that makes you feel good once in a while.
2) Look after your relationship with your spouse! Doing whatever you can to avoid angry outbursts or violence in your home is a gift you give your children. If you can't ensure your child's safety or a home free of violence, then it's likely better to separate from your spouse than staying in a violent relationship.
3) Look after your child! Keep the child emotionally engaged with you, safe from physical and sexual violence, and supported by a network of concerned adults and you will reap the benefits of a child who has a good start in life.