Blame the stressful lives of many poor families for lack of academic progress and poor health. In 1995, more than 17 thousand participants took the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey, reporting current health and personal childhood experiences in ten different categories, including physical and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and different measures of family dysfunction such as divorce, mental illness, violence and murder.
Researchers Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda found surprising correlations between adverse childhood experiences and adult outcomes. “Compared to people with no history of ACEs, people with ACE scores of 4 or higher were twice as likely to smoke, seven times more likely to be alcoholics, and seven times more likely to have had sex before age fifteen. They were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with cancer, twice as likely to have heart disease, twice as likely to have liver disease. …Adults with an ACE score above 6 were thirty times more likely to have attempted suicide than those with an ACE score of 0. And men with an ACE score above 5 were forty-six times more likely to have injected drugs than men with no history of ACEs.”*
High ACE scores were also correlated with problems in school. Only 3% of children with no history of ACE had identified learning or behavior problems. Among those with ACE of 4 or more, it was 51%. The part of the brain largely affected by stress is the prefrontal cortex, center of self-regulation. That makes it difficult to concentrate, sit still, handle anger and follow directions, all key enablers of academic performance.
Current scientific consensus holds that childhood adversity causes stress, which wears on developing bodies. The human body regulates stress by releasing hormones called glucocorticoids, which activate neurotransmitters and elevate glucose levels. The cardiovascular system increases blood pressure, sending blood loaded with glucose and inflammatory proteins to the muscles.
Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky explains, “our stress-response system, like that of all mammals, evolved to react to brief and acute stresses. That worked well when humans were out on the savanna running from predators…. Most of our stress today comes from mental processes: from worrying about things. (We) activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end…. Scientists have discovered that this phenomenon is not merely inefficient but also highly destructive.” *
However, it seems that there is a counterweight to the effects of a stressful childhood. Researchers followed the development of more than 1200 babies from seven months of age, measuring the way that their cortisol levels elevated in response to stressful situations. They found that family factors such as emotional torment and crowded conditions had a marked effect on cortisol levels in children, but only if their mothers were not sufficiently responsive. Negative effects of stress were practically erased by highly responsive and nurturing mothering.
Mary Ainsworth, of Johns Hopkins University, showed that attentive parenting during the first year of life produced more independent and intrepid children. She was able to define the quality of maternal response and the emotional capacity of children through the maternal bond. Ainsworth developed a test called “Strange Situation”, in which mothers played with their children, then left them in a room for a short duration. When they returned, most toddlers ran to their mothers or cried and hugged them, behaviors Ainsworth called a “secure bond”. Children who ignored or blamed their mothers or showed other disconnected behaviors were described as having an “anxious bond”. Those who developed a secure bond were later much more adept at making friends during childhood, from preschool through high school. One of Ainsworth’s surprising findings was that the quality of the maternal bond formed in infancy was the single most predictive factor for high school graduation (77%) years later.
Good news came from other studies on maternal bonding. One researcher, Dale Cicchetti, followed 137 families with a history of mistreatment of children. At the beginning of the study, each family had a one-year-old. Only one of 137 babies was found to have a secure maternal bond. Families were assigned to a control group which received the standard interventions for families with reported child abuse. Those in the experimental group received specific family therapy (Lieberman) once a week. When the children turned two years old, they were reevaluated for the maternal bond. In the experimental group, 61% had developed a secure bond, compared to only 2% of the control group.
So even in the most problematic families, healthy child-rearing practices can be developed which mitigate the effect of childhood stress, with possible profound effects later on. Millions could be saved on medical treatments and incarcerations and millions more produced in taxes on productively employed adults. By all counts, this would be a worthwhile investment in human productivity.
* Citations from Tough, Paul, “How Children Succeed”. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (www.hmhco.com), 2012.