A Happy Childhood Translates into a Mentally Healthy Adulthood, Right?

A Happy Childhood Translates into a Mentally Healthy Adulthood, Right?

 By Jim Windell

             No matter what movie or TV show or series we are watching and if there is violence, my wife always asks the same question: “What makes someone do such horrible things? Is it because they were abused as a child?”

            And being both the psychological writer and the criminal justice instructor, my answer is always the same: “Maybe. But not necessarily.”

            Not that that answer actually satisfies her or suppresses further questions. Since I teach criminological theory, which explores theories and reasons why people engage in criminal – sometimes violent – behavior, I tell her that no theory really helps us understand why people erupt in violent, sadistic behavior. There can be many explanations as to why a certain individual becomes a murderer, a terrorist or a serial killer. Or simply has mental health problems.

            We know that a difficult childhood can increase the likelihood of mental illness, but that doesn’t mean that we can predict that a particular person will be violent or aggressive towards others. When you examine the lives of many of the people who were school shooters, it seems that many grew up in suburban neighbors and were spared the kinds of adverse circumstances that someone who grew up, say, in a poverty-stricken neighborhood would have experienced.

           Now comes some research that adds to our understanding of whether a difficult childhood leads to mental health issues.

           According to this new research, a happy and secure childhood does not always protect a child from developing a mental illness later in life.

           This research comes from the University of South Australia in partnership with the University of Canberra and was published in Current Psychology. The researchers set out to examine how early childhood experiences relate to different developmental pathways, and how these might be associated with poor mental health.

           The study was conducted in Australia where almost 50 per cent of the population will experience mental illness at some point in their lives and where an estimated 314,000 children aged 4-11 (almost 14 per cent) experience a mental disorder.

           The results of the study reaffirms what was found in previous studies: That people who had adverse and unpredictable early life experiences had elevated symptoms of poor mental health (including depression and paranoia). But it also found that children who grew up in stable and supportive environments were also at risk of experiencing symptoms of anxiety in adulthood.

           Lead researcher Bianca Kahl, a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia, says the study highlights the indiscriminate nature of mental illness and reveals key insights about potential risk factors for all children. "As the prevalence of mental health conditions expands, it's imperative that we also extend our knowledge of this very complex and varied condition," Kahl says.

           Kahl went on to say that the research shows that mental health conditions are not solely determined by early life events, and that a child who is raised in a happy home, could still grow up to have a mental health disorder. Kahl and her colleagues believe that it's our ability to adapt – or rather not adapt – to unexpected scenarios that might be influencing mental health.

           That suggests that there are missing factors in our understanding of how a person’s childhood environment and their early life experiences might translate into mental health outcomes in adulthood.

           Kahl speculates that "We suspect that it's our expectations about our environments and our ability to adapt to scenarios when our expectations are not being met, that may be influencing our experiences of distress. If, as children, we learn how to adapt to change, and we learn how to cope when things do not go our way, we may be in a better position to respond to stress and other risk factors for poor mental health.”

           All of which could mean that if you grow up in a stable, protected environment you may not learn how to cope with the unpredictable and the kinds of disappointments life throws at you.

           So, my wife’s questions are still not answered. Why does a person show their inability to adapt to disappointments and other of life’s vicissitudes by resorting to violence?

           To read the original journal article, use this reference:

Bianca L. Kahl, Phillip S. Kavanagh, David H. Gleaves. Testing a life history model of psychopathology: A replication and extension. Current Psychology, 2020; DOI: 10.1007/s12144-020-01062-y

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