The upsides of a difficult childhood

Conventional wisdom holds that difficulties during childhood — such as poverty, abuse, neglect, or dysfunctional families — leads to further setbacks as an adult. Those damaged by childhood experiences may never live up to their full potential. But new research shows there may be an upside to living through a difficult childhood.

Sure — previous studies link punishing childhoods with lower scores on tests of memory and intelligence. In adult life, there is also a higher risk of depression, chronic back pain, and even heart disease. Adults may even have what psychologists call a “hostile attribution bias,” meaning they perceive threats in situations that others appropriately view as neutral. Their basic fight-or-flight reflexes “overshoot.” So — they imagine and react to things that aren’t really significant threats in the world around us.

Such a bias can interfere with formation of professional and social alliances.

I remember taking a psychology course as part of officer training in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. The young instructor, who was an officer in the Biological Sciences Corps, administered a “thematic apperception test” to assess conditions like “attribution bias.” For the test, we viewed images with no words or explanations and had to interpret what was going on in the scene. Appropriately enough, the images consisted of still frames from silent movies of the 1920s.

I was struck by one scene showing the silent screen actor Fatty Arbuckle surrounded by people with their arms and hands stretched out toward him. It was clear to me that poor Fatty was being apprehended for having done something wrong.

I was surprised to learn that most of the class perceived that people were reaching out to help him and keep him from falling. (Ironically, Fatty’s career ended when a young actress fell out — or was pushed out — a window in his hotel room.)

I don’t know where most of the other young officer trainees ended up, but I do know that I perceived Vietnam to be a hostile and threatening environment. Perhaps living through that hostile environment helped prepare me for a career of finding and telling the truth about our mainstream crony capitalist healthcare system.

Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, new science shows that experiencing trauma early in life isn’t all gloom and doom. In fact, there may be some valuable skills learned…

Difficult experiences sharpen responses in a good way too

Recent studies show that individuals who had difficult experiences during youth exhibit a greater ability to detect and monitor real threats and situations.

One study tested two elements of executive cognitive function. The first test measured inhibition of impulses. The second test measured the individual’s ability to disengage from one task and pick up another. In other words, it measured how the participants “multi-tasked” — which is what modern life seems to be all about.

In computer-based challenges used to measure inhibition of impulses, those with difficult childhoods responded the same as their peers. However, when participants were asked to first read an article predicting a dystopian future, participants with difficult childhoods performed worse.

When it came to multi-tasking test, the two groups did not differ under controlled conditions. However, when challenged with the article predicting an uncertain future, those with difficult childhoods outperformed their privileged peers. They shifted focus more quickly between tasks without losing accuracy.

Difficulties in childhood help develop resilience

This resilience may provide advantages in making one’s way in a treacherous world. It also shows a cognitive flexibility that correlates positively with traits such as creativity. In general, I often find that “under-privileged” children grow into adults who have a greater expediency and less concern about “perfectionism.” It comes down to having a tolerance for ambiguity.

I remember learning the meaning of the word “ambiguous” when I was in grade school. The teenage neighbor was babysitting us, while studying her own school assignment about Shakespeare. She got into a discussion with me that included reference to the word ambiguity. When she explained what it meant, I remember thinking to myself — now that is a useful word to know.

When it comes to trying to provide a perfect childhood, the results may be indeed ambiguous. And that ambiguity may help explain what is happening with today’s “perfect” generation of children, as they now (attempt to) reach adulthood.



“The Surprising Benefits of a Tough Childhood,” Psychology Today,” ( 3/7/2017