The antidote to nagging childhood pain

Maria Isabel Garcia
Our childhood years quickly give way to the teenage years, and it is at this stage that the effects of childhood adversity usually take their toll

If your childhood was painful, what kind of adult would you be? A study says how you survive your teenage years may be key.

All of us, in some form or another, and in varying levels, have experienced adversity in childhood. It can include parental abuse or neglect, being bullied, separation from your parents, sexual abuse by others, or physical trauma. These are very profound events that will naturally wound your mind. If they continue to haunt you as the years pass and disrupt your life as an adult, then they lead to psychopathology. Psychopathology refers to “general mental distress, as self-harm behavior, as suicidal ideation, or as categorical diagnosis or continuous symptoms of any disorder included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” The World Health Organization found that 30% of mental disorders in adults all find their beginnings in childhood.

Childhood, especially the ages 0 to 5, is the “age of the great wiring.” The things that are learned during childhood, particularly emotional and social learning, are “hot-wired” within this period. A study of kindergarten kids tracked through early adulthood found that kids who had pro-social kills – the ones with the most empathy – were more likely to find success 9 to 13 years later. The kids in the mentioned study were from poor families, and as they became adolescents and adults, those who had better emotional and social skills did better in staying in school, holding jobs, and resisting drug use. 

I bet that most of you will readily identify childhood adversity to be emotional, social, financial, or related to health issues. But surprisingly, financial is not really classified as a childhood adversity in and of itself. Being poor does not automatically spell adult doom, unless it is linked to the “loss of a significant other, discord within the family, poor parenting, traumatic life events/tragedy, chronic or life stress, hardship, at-risk environment, childhood abuse and/or maltreatment and/or mistreatment, and/ or childhood neglect.”

Our childhood years quickly give way to the teenage years, and it is at this stage that the effects of childhood adversity usually take their toll. The teenage brain would now have to negotiate how to deal with the scars of childhood adversity. No one can change the past, but science found alleys and crevices in the present that can make the teenager shield herself or himself from being eroded by her or his own childhood scars. It is called resiliency, and according to research, there are things that help build resiliency in the individual and in the family.

A 2018 review of a range of relevant studies has found that at the individual level, what helps the teenager to be resilient is if she or he is able to revisit his or her childhood adversity with an adjusted perspective. This means that when she or he is not fixated on it, then it spells a way out of being swallowed by the dark episodes of her or his childhood. I think this could take the form of understanding that your parents were also taught by their parents certain things that they thought were right but really caused you harm. Being mentally flexible enough to understand and perhaps even forgive builds resiliency and helps you build your path to a kind of adulthood that is less disrupted by the dark memories of your childhood.

The review also found that if teenagers relied less on alcohol to solve their problems, were not readily aggressive, and affirmed their fundamental self-worth, the more able they were to cope with their dark childhood memories. This is so crucial because as teenagers are wired to push boundaries at this stage, they may mistakenly think alcohol erases pain when in fact, it just depletes your spirit to overcome it.  

I think for self-worth, if there is not much social support, books could be a great help to make you affirm your birthright to seize your own coordinates in life. I just got a book called Velocity of Being, a compilation of letters of remarkable people to young readers on what books did to their lives when they themselves were kids. This is my personal prescription to young people who find live human company in short supply, or the ones available are unwilling or unable to share some points of light in this collective enterprise we call living.

In terms of the role of family on teenage resiliency to childhood adversity, the study found, not surprisingly, that strong family support and a positive family outlook are strong pillars of resiliency. I guess even if it was the same family that gave you that adversity – whether unintended or not – having that family reckon with that scar could help you foil the slings you feel inside. I think here, learning how to process the ups and downs within a family is crucial. Our parents, who had barely come out of their teenage years when they became parents to me and my siblings, were both geniuses at this. This is why while they both admit to being the “cause” of some of our childhood adversities, we are able to come as a family to retell the stories and pinpoint levers to shift things for the better. It is never solved once and for all, but with open lines, chances are not so many things will get stuck and explode.

Another recent study points to the role of happy memories in making teenagers cope with depression. The research found that when teenagers are made to recall happy memories, it helps them ease the gray burden of depression. This means that whether you are a family or a friend of a child, a happy memory that you make with him or her is a lasting gift. We all have the power to lessen the number of adults who are messed up by birthing good times with each other. This is also why online “liking” is not meaningful gift, even if it doses you with the millisecond rewarding feeling when you see the up-thumb icon. 

The cynics would always frown at a single act of kindness, saying only a system-wide network of positive support will matter to societies. But societies are made up of individuals. I know from my own experience and decisions that the darkest of individual lives could be illuminated by points of light. So if you are wondering what to give to someone that will truly help him or her for all time? Make a happy memory together. That will go to his or her survival kit, ready to be retrieved and pulled in case of emergency. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.