November 23, 2014
Family Trauma and Health
Be Well

Family Trauma and Health

by Keng Lam  |  

I read a book recently that really piqued my curiosity. In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Mariner Books, 2013), writer Paul Tough highlights the importance of character—which embodies qualities such as persistence, inquisitiveness, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control—and why we need this in today’s education system.

The author does a wonderful job of citing stories from scientists, educators, youths—even chess players. What’s key is that this isn’t simply a book that appeals to our emotions; it also incorporates the findings from numerous research papers and studies that support his claim that character is something that can be and should be taught.

I was particularly intrigued by a study that Tough cites—called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)—which highlighted the relationship between children’s mental and physical health. In the ACE study, one of the largest studies to look at associations between negative childhood experiences and later life well-being, more than 17,000 health maintenance organization (HMO) members received comprehensive physical exams and completed questionnaires about their childhoods.

An ongoing collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, the study found that those who experienced a greater number of childhood traumas (such as having an alcoholic parent or being sexually abused) also experienced more negative health outcomes (such as obesity or depression).

For some psychologists, that observation is not surprising; it's known that traumatic events can lead to a sense of worthlessness that causes unhealthy behaviors such as heavy drinking and smoking. But the study finding that astonished me is that the negative effects on health appear to persist even without self-destructive behaviors. One example, highlighted by Tough, is that people who dealt with seven or more categories of trauma in childhood are at 360 percent higher risk of having heart disease—even if they are of normal weight and don’t smoke or drink to excess.

What can explain how childhood traumas literally make people sick? Tough has an answer for this: stress.

In summary, he says, if we are in imminent danger (say, facing a wild bear), our stress hormones kick into overdrive and help us react quickly to the emergency. But chronically elevated levels of these hormones, like we might experience in a violent household, can hurt our emotional and physical health.