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A Traumatic Childhood Isn't Completely a Bad Thing

Photograph by Getty Images

No one wants or plans for their child to have a traumatic experience in childhood, but that’s not how most trauma works. As we all know, unexpected life twists and unforeseen accidents can happen to anyone, big or small, old or young. And they can cast shadows for years, sometimes for the rest of our lives.

According to a recent study in the journal "Health Affairs," almost half of all children in the U.S. have a traumatic event in childhood that can have serious consequences on the child’s health and academics. And what researchers deem as “trauma” isn’t always what you’d expect.

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Christina D. Bethell (PhD, MPH, MBA) from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and her colleagues analyzed data from a 2011-12 survey of parents, including nearly 100,000 U.S. children under 17. The survey highlighted a range of traumatic experiences like domestic violence, neighborhood violence and parental jail time, as well as more ordinary trauma like poverty, divorce, mental illness at home and the death of a parent. Researchers also included racism and unfair ethnic treatment as a form of real trauma for kids.

The scariest thing for parents is how little we can control all of the traumatic events that might affect our children.

The scariest thing for parents—myself included—is how little we can control all of the traumatic events that might affect our children, sensitive little beings who absorb so much more toxic stress than we like to admit. I mean, we don’t plan on losing our jobs and falling below the poverty line, or slipping into a chronic depression, or explaining why daddy was killed in a car crash and won’t be coming home. I certainly never expected for my husband’s painkiller prescription to lead us down a painful, suffocating path for the last five years. I never expected to ask the man I love to move out, away from our son, because the tension is too much. Which trauma is worse: Living with an addicted father or having divorced parents? According to these researchers, they both can lead to chronic health problems and academic struggles. Pick your trauma.

For parents like me, simply trying to stay afloat and minimize the myriad of ways we can mess up our children, the study did find a silver lining in the form of one word: resilience.

In fact, the importance of resilience has been widely explored from scientific journals to TED Talk stages in recent years. It’s now pegged as a key component to success, happiness and health and is an important part of parenting because, as we know, adversity and trauma can enter our children’s lives in a blink. But for those of us already teetering on trauma, instilling a sense of resilience—the ability to bounce back from challenges and effectively cope with stress—can make all the difference.

“Adverse childhood events don’t automatically have to have long-term traumatic impacts for children,” Bethell concluded from her team’s research. According to her press statement, “Among children with two or more adverse experiences who already had a chronic condition …those who had learned and showed even the one aspect of resilience evaluated in the study were 1.5-times more likely to be engaged in school and nearly half as likely to repeat a grade in school compared to those who had not learned this skill.”

So how do we do instill resilience in our kids?

Kids need to know that they can make mistakes, that it’s OK and normal to face problems, that they are masters of their own fate.

Well we can head to the bookstore and pick up books like "Raising Resilient Children" by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, or "The Resilience Factor" by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, Ph.D. We can get lost in the rabbit hole of YouTube videos on resilience (which, as I can attest, isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon). But there are two very basic ideas that I’ve gathered from my research.

First of all, kids need inner strength and self-worth to be resilient. (You can read eye-opening tips here, including why empathy, unconditional love and honest acceptance of our children are so important.) Kids need to know that they can make mistakes, that it’s OK and normal to face problems, that they are masters of their own fate—no matter what life throws at them. They need hope.

The second, and arguably most important, factor is that parents have to model resiliency for their kids. It’s really that simple. If kids are going through something traumatic—say the pain from divorce or the inconsistency and confusion from an alcoholic parent—then there’s likely other people in the house who are also affected by said trauma. How do our kids see us cope? Do we have the courage to effectively solve problems in our lives, or do we sink into the same self-defeating patterns? When we make mistakes or face adversity, do we blame others and fly into a rage, or do we use it as an opportunity to learn and grow?

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It’s not easy to practice resilience, just as it’s not easy to be a parent or to be a child or to be a human. But here we are, faced with traumas, adversity and challenges every day. Although it’s detailed in a black-and-white study, we don’t really need researchers telling us that kids have traumatic childhoods—we know it from our own lives. We know how stressful life can be, and how the uncontrollable events of our childhood shaped us for better and worse. This is unavoidable, no matter how much we’d like to protect our children in a fantasy world of magical elves and pixie dust. Kids go through tough things; we all do.

But there’s that silver lining again: resilience. And if embracing resiliency in our lives is the best way to instill this crucial life skill in our children, then we’ll all be better, healthier and stronger in the long run.

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