If you want to give your child the best chance of preventing mental illness and a host of medical problems, this is the single most important factor to consider. It affects 1 in 4 children. I am talking about child maltreatment. Child abuse comes in the form of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect and leads to problems later in life. This is a stronger predictor for psychiatric and physical problems, more so than any gene or other factor.

When children experience adverse childhood experiences, this early life stress puts them at risk for more than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The risk for mood disorders, addiction, schizophrenia and other mental problems is higher. Not only is their risk higher, but they are also more treatment resistant. This is because early life trauma changes the brain and body. Child maltreatment changes the structure and function of the brain and predicts future mood symptoms. The effects are long-term in terms of their neurobiology and immune responses.

Six early trauma experiences are particularly difficult for children. They are the death of a close friend or family member, parental separation or divorce, traumatic sexual experiences such as rape, incest, etc., being a victim of violence such as an attack or assault, having an extreme illness or injury, or experiencing any other event or trauma considered to shape their life.

Thus, our greatest hope of having a well-adjusted child is to prevent adverse child experiences when you can. And if there is trauma related to a death or illness, get the child help to process those events. The more you can do for children early on in life to create a safe and secure childhood, the better.

A few suggestions to help are 1) Limit their exposure to media that shows disturbing events or story lines 2) If your child is exposed to a troubling news story, process the story with your child and give reassurance. 3) Allow your child to express emotions through drawing if talking is more difficult 4) Don’t say, “Nothing is wrong,” if there really is something wrong. Children sense this is not honest. Tailor the information you give and reassure them they are not at fault. 5) Keep your promises and build trust.

Above all, create a home of safety and security. Build a strong attachment with your child to help weather life storms. We can’t always protect children from adverse events, but we can be a safe harbor for them. And that safe harbor goes a long way in preventing later life problems.


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