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12/3/17blog post

research suggests benefits of stressful childhoods

A man in his late 30s stopped by my office unexpectedly and asked me the most terrifying question you can ask a child psychologist: “Do you remember me?”

I looked at his face and quickly tried to imagine what he looked like as a child. He finally gave me his name, and I remembered him immediately. As a young boy, he had a horrendous childhood, growing up in multiple foster homes.


However, he came by to tell me how well he was doing, both professionally and personally.

I fear he is an exception. Adverse childhood experiences resonate throughout a person’s life, placing kids at risk for a variety of physical and mental problems. Hundreds of studies conducted over the past 40 years have come to the same conclusions: bad childhoods have long-term effects.

While we’ve extensively studied the negative impact of early childhood stress, might those same bad events have some positive consequences?  I’ve just read a fascinating article by Megan Hustad in Psychology Today on the “Surprising Benefits for Those Who Had Tough Childhoods.”  Hustad argues that there is an increasing number of studies that have discovered that bad times have positive effects on some kids.

Youngsters experiencing significant childhood stress may exhibit improved problem-solving, resiliency, and greater cognitive flexibility. Forced by circumstances to deal with chaos, pain, and instability, some kids acquire valuable skills that serve them well throughout their adulthood. 

No one is suggesting that we should raise kids in bad environments, but parents caring for kids in good homes can learn from this research.

  1. Allow your kids to feel pain and distress. I realize this goes against every parental instinct, but kids need to learn how to deal with feeling uncomfortable. This should occur at an early age, with parents viewing themselves more as coaches and teachers rather than protectors. If you allow your child to deal with low levels of stress at an early age, they are more equipped to deal with the tougher realities of their adolescent and adult years.
  2. Teach problem-solving. It feels good to resolve a child’s dispute with a teacher, playmate, or coach. We take care of the issue, and our child looks up to us. But our child learns little about life.

Bad things happen- some minor while others are catastrophic.  Most of these events can’t be avoided. Doesn’t it make more sense to teach our kids how to manage these tough times rather than intervening to make their lives comfortable?

Take a look at the Hustad article. I hope it reassures you that intervening less today will better prepare your kids for tomorrow.