Parent's Tough Childhood Can Cast Shadow Across Generations

Parent's Tough Childhood Can Cast Shadow Across Generations

When a parent has suffered abuse or other adversities as a child, their children may be more prone to mood and behavior problems, a new study suggests.

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Their kids were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And they were four times as likely to have been diagnosed with any mental health disorder.

The findings imply that the impact of childhood traumas can stretch across generations, the researchers said.

Parents' own mental health seemed to partly explain the results, said lead researcher Dr. Adam Schickedanz, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

That makes sense, since previous research has shown that when parents have a mental health condition -- like depression or an anxiety disorder -- that can affect their ability to read and respond to their kids, he explained.

"We're not sounding alarm bells," Schickedanz said. "This simply reinforces what we all know intuitively -- that the way we were raised, and our life experiences, affect how we raise our children. The role models we had shape our expectations of parenting."

No one is trying to "blame" those parents or imply that their kids are destined to have problems, he added.

Instead, he said, the findings show that those children are at relatively greater risk than other kids.

Dr. Daniel Schechter, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who was not involved in the study, agreed.

But like any such study, this one is reporting averages across groups, noted Schechter, who directs the Stress, Trauma and Resilience program at NYU Langone's Child Study Center, in New York City.

"A statistical analysis can't capture individual differences," Schechter said.

For example, even if parents faced adversities as kids, they may also have had positive experiences -- including positive adult role models -- that countered the negatives.

But Schechter said the findings underscore an important point: Children's behavioral and emotional difficulties should be seen as a family issue -- and not only the child's.

So when a child is evaluated for any problems, he said, the health care provider can ask parents questions about the whole family dynamic. And that can include questions about their own childhood experiences.

Schechter gave an example: "I might ask a parent, 'Which experiences with your own parents would you keep, and which ones would you change?' "

In some cases, he said, a parent might need a referral to a provider to address his or her own mental health issues.

The study findings were based on interviews with parents of over 2,500 U.S. children. Overall, 20 percent said they'd had at least four "adverse experiences" as kids, including experiences such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to substance abuse, domestic abuse or mental illness in the home.

Just over 8 percent of all the children had been diagnosed with ADHD, while just under 4 percent had been diagnosed with a mental health condition. The odds were elevated among children whose parents had faced at least four adversities as kids.

The link was partly explained by parents' current mental health, and their frustration with parenting -- both gauged with standard questionnaires. But those factors did not completely account for the connection, Schickedanz said, and the study did not prove a cause-and-effect association.

The study was published online July 9 in the journal Pediatrics.

The findings were not surprising to Ana Ojeda, a clinical psychologist at Nicklaus Children's Hospital, in Miami.

"This is reflective of what we see in clinical practice," she said.

Ojeda agreed that it's critical to address family dynamics when kids have behavioral or emotional problems. "We try to help parents understand that this is a family issue," she said.

Not surprisingly, parents often don't want their childhood traumas revisited, both Schechter and Ojeda said.

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Schechter said, "Sometimes, when you've had these experiences, you want to avoid ever thinking about them."

But while it may be painful, he said, talking about the past can be an important step in helping parents improve their relationship with their children.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has advice on parenting.


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