Half of US children exposed to traumatic social or family experiences during childhood

Research has shown that early traumatic experiences can set us on a course for mental and physical health issues later on.

Based on our own personal and professional experiences with anxiety disorder, we almost always see a link between early traumatic experiences and the development of problematic anxiety.

With anxiety disorder showing a dramatic increase in prevalence over the last ten years, many people are asking why.  A recent study by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health may have discovered one of the reasons.

Their findings, published in the December issue of the journal Health Affairs, shows that half of US children were exposed to traumatic social or family experiences during childhood. Experiences include, parents divorce, a parent dying, or by living with someone who abuses alcohol or drugs. This exposure increases a child’s risk of negative long-term consequences, include falling behind in school. We know that some of these factors are also involved in an increased risk of developing problematic anxiety.

“This study tells us that adverse childhood experiences are common among U.S. children and, as demonstrated in adult studies, have lifelong impacts that begin early in life.”

Christina D. Bethell, PhD, MPH, MBA, a professor in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The study found that more than 22 percent of the 95,677 children  in the survey had two or more of these traumatic childhood experiences. Researchers found that children with two or more adverse experiences were more than 2.5-times more likely to repeat a grade in school as well as be disengaged in school, compared to those without any traumatic experiences, and after adjusting for confounding factors such as race, income and health status. Children with these experiences were also much more likely to have a wide range of chronic health problems, including asthma, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, obesity and other health and risk factors. Children with adverse childhood experiences were also less likely than those without to live in a protective home environment and have mothers who were healthy.

The news isn’t all bad, the researchers say. Some of these children develop more resiliency when dealing with adversity, and much of the harm can be reversed through understanding, support, and therapy. But the research does show that much more needs to be done to prevent early life trauma and its negative long-term effects.

“Adverse childhood events don’t automatically have to have long-term traumatic impacts for children. To recognize trauma in children requires widespread awareness and skills-building among adults interacting with children at all levels. Efforts to support children, families and communities, so they can create a culture that supports safe, stable and nurturing relationships, hold great promise. Rapid innovation and studies documenting best methods and their impact are called for now. Supporting and teaching the adults in children’s lives to learn to heal from trauma and learn resilience themselves may be the most effective strategy to implement immediately.”

Christina D. Bethell