Under the Hood

Children's Risk Of Mental Health Problems Higher If Parents Faced Childhood Trauma

Parents who faced severe stress and trauma early in their lives may be more likely to have children with behavioral health problems, according to new research from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The study titled "Parents’ Adverse Childhood Experiences and Their Children’s Behavioral Health Problems" was published in the journal Pediatrics on July 9.

These adverse experiences include divorce or separation of parents, experiencing the death of a parent, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, exposure to violence or substance abuse at home, estrangement from a parent, or parental mental illness.

"Previous research has looked at childhood trauma as a risk factor for later physical and mental health problems in adulthood, but this is the first research to show that the long-term behavioral health harms of childhood adversity extend across generations from parent to child," said lead author Dr. Adam Schickedanz, a pediatrician and assistant professor at UCLA.

The research team examined data from a national survey across four generations of families in the United States. This included relevant details about the parents i.e. whether they had any adverse experiences as children such as abuse, neglect, etc. The survey data also gathered information about their children's behavior problems and mental health diagnoses.

After controlling for factors like family income and education level, the researchers noted associations between the parents' history of adverse experiences and their children's mental health problems. 

"Parents with greater exposure to [adverse childhood experiences] are more likely to have children with behavioral health problems," the authors wrote. Parents who had four or more adverse childhood experiences had children who were at double the risk of having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and were four times more likely to have mental health problems.

The mother's adverse childhood experiences were found to have more weight than the father's, as the former was associated with a stronger adverse effect on the mental health of their child.

To explain the link, it was noted parents with such a history were at very high risk of mental health problems themselves and may also have high levels of aggravation. This could significantly affect their parenting abilities, leading to a harmful cycle.

However, the researchers believed these factors could only explain about a quarter of the association, warranting further studies to gain a complete understanding.

The study is among many that support a standardized assessment of parents during their child’s pediatric health visits. Doctors can benefit from being made aware of any significant stress or trauma from their childhood.

"If we can identify these children who are at a higher risk, we can connect them to services that might reduce their risk or prevent behavioral health problems," Schickedanz added.