The Shadows Of Childhood On Your Mental Health 

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By Aamir Bashir & Wasim Kakroo

DEVELOPMENT is a series of rebirths. The child passes through certain phases during development each of which has its own particular needs. The characteristics of each are so different that the passages from one phase to the other phase have been described as ‘rebirths. The tiny child’s absorbent mind finds all its nutriment in its surroundings.  Here it has to locate itself, and build itself up from what it takes in. Especially at the beginning of life we must, therefore, make the environment as interesting and attractive as we can. The child, as we have seen, passes through successive phases of development and in each of these phases his surroundings have an important – though different – part to play.  In none of these phases, are the surroundings more importance than immediately after birth.

 Child development is interplay of genetic and environmental factors. Genes set limits within which environment influences child’s development. For instance, Genes provide the basic framework for brain development; however genes don’t design the brain. Environmental influences fine tune how the brain works by shaping which brain connections get used. Together genes and environment build the foundation for all future development. Therefore it is to be understood that positive environment is important for overall development of a child. However, not every child is fortunate enough to have a childhood they would like to remember because of haunting and traumatic childhood experiences , which we call  “Adverse childhood experiences“.

Adverse childhood experiences:

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) refer to some of the most intensive and frequently occurring sources of stress that children may suffer early in life. Such experiences include multiple types of abuse; neglect; violence between parents or caregivers; other kinds of serious household dysfunction such as alcohol and substance abuse; and peer, community and collective violence (world health organization).

As per CDC Kaiser ace study (1995,1997):  10 ACE’S were identified which are Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), Neglect (physical, emotional), Household dysfunction ( Mental illness, Domestic violence, Divorce, incarcerated relative, substance abuse).

Risk factors for adverse childhood experiences:

Individual and family risk factors: 

  • Families experiencing care giving challenges related to children with special needs (for example, disabilities, mental health issues, chronic physical illnesses)

  • Children and youth who don’t feel close to their parents/caregivers and feel like they can’t talk to them about their feelings

  • Children and youth with few or no friends or with friends who engage in aggressive or delinquent behavior.

  • Families with caregivers who have a limited understanding of children’s needs or development.

  • Families with young caregivers or single parents.

  • Families with adults with low levels of education.

  • Families experiencing high levels of parenting stress or economic stress.

  • Families with caregivers who were abused or neglected as children.

  • Families with caregivers who use spanking and other forms of corporal punishment for discipline.

  • Families with inconsistent discipline and/or low levels of parental monitoring and supervision.

  • Families with high conflict and negative communication styles.

  • Families with attitudes accepting of or justifying violence or aggression.

Community risk factors:

  • Communities with high rates of violence and crime.

  • Communities with high rates of poverty and limited educational and economic opportunities.

  • Communities with high unemployment rates.

  • Communities with high levels of social and environmental disorder.

  • Communities with easy access to drugs and alcohol.

Impact of ACE’s on Mental health

Kids who have more supportive experiences during childhood with family, friends, and people in their school and community may be less likely to have psychological or relationship troubles in adulthood, however kids with Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like abuse, neglect, violence, and parental absence have long been linked to lasting negative effects on physical and mental health. These experiences are potentially traumatic experiences, that can affect children for years and impact their life opportunities.

Following is the mention of the impact of childhood adverse experiences in the different areas of the life of a child who has been through various traumatic experiences:

Brain development: 

Smaller brain size

Less efficient processing

Impaired stress response

Changes in gene expression

Cognition:

Impaired readiness to learn

Difficulty in problem solving

Language delays

Problem with concentration

Poor academic achievement

Physical health:

Sleep disorders

Eating disorders

Poor immune system functioning

Cardiovascular disease

Shorter life span

Emotions:

Difficulty in controlling emotions

Trouble recognizing emotions

Limited coping skills

Increased sensitivity to stress

Feelings of shame and guilt

Excessive worry

Hopelessness

Feelings of helplessness/lack of self-efficacy

Relationships:

Attachment problems/disorders

Poor understanding of social interactions

Difficulty in forming relationships with peers

Problems in romantic relationships

Intergenerational cycles of abuse and neglect

Behavior:

Poor self-regulation

Social withdrawal

Aggression

Poor impulse control

Risk-taking tendency/tendency to take part in illegal activity

Sexual acting out

Drug and alcohol misuse

Mental health:

Depression

Anxiety

Negative self-image/low self-esteem

Post traumatic stress disorder

Personality Disorders

Psychotic disorders

Suicidality/self-harm tendencies

As can be understood from the above list, ACEs can affect almost all the important areas of the child’s life in significantly negative ways. Therefore, it is helpful in such cases to take help of mental health professionals especially clinical psychologist for mitigating individual psychological harm and to address the social pathways which may mediate the negative impact of ACEs.


Views expressed are the author’s own responsibility and are not a substitute for medical advice. These are for educational and awareness purposes only 

  • Aamir Bashir is a mental health counselor at IMHANS, Kashmir, can be reached at [email protected] / Wasim Kakroo is a clinical psychologist and can be reached at [email protected] 

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