The childhood hardships included in the study were as follows: divorce or separation of parents; death of or estrangement from a parent; emotional, physical or sexual abuse; witnessing violence in the home; exposure to substance abuse in the household or parental mental illness.
The findings reveal that the children of parents who themselves had four or more adverse childhood experiences were at double the risk of having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and were four times more likely to have mental health problems. In addition, a mother’s childhood experiences had a stronger adverse effect on a child’s behavioral health than the father’s experiences.
“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 the study’s lead author, Dr. Adam Schickedanz.
Schickedanz is a pediatrician and health services researcher and assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Parents who lived through adverse childhood experiences were also more likely to report higher levels of aggravation as parents and to experience mental health problems, the researchers found. Yet these mental health and attitude factors only explained about a quarter of the association to their child’s elevated behavioral health risks.
The remainder of how the parent’s negative childhood experiences are transmitted to their child’s behavior needs further study.
The research adds to the growing evidence supporting standardized assessment of parents for adverse childhood experiences during their child’s pediatric health visits.
“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 said.
For the study, the team analyzed data from a national survey showing information from four generations of American families. This included information from parents about whether they were abused, neglected or exposed to other family stressors or maltreatment while growing up, and information on their children’s behavior problems and medical diagnoses of attention deficit disorder.
With this data, the researchers were able to find strong links between the parents’ adversity histories and their children’s behavioral health problems, while controlling for factors such as family poverty and education level.
The next step for researchers is to look at how resilience factors, such as the support of mentors or teachers, could counteract the harms of childhood traumas, Schickedanz said.