Experiencing "Toxic Stress" During Your Childhood Could Affect Your Kids' Health, Study Says

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Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — such as witnessing parents fight or get divorced, dealing with the stress of having a parent with a mental illness or a substance abuse problem, or coping with physical or emotional abuse — could impact parenting later down the line. That's because parents who'd endured "toxic stress" during childhood are more likely to have kids with developmental delays, which could affect the kids' emotional health, new research suggests. And those parents have a harder time coping with their own children's health issues.

Wear and tear on the body that leads to physical and mental health problems can continue from one generation to the next, according to the series of three studies just published in Pediatrics.. The researchers believe that the reason behind these developmental delays could be that mothers who experience more adversity in childhood also have more health risks during pregnancy.

"What we didn’t know is how these risks are 'inherited,' or specifically what is the chain of events from a parent experiencing adversity in childhood to their own children experiencing adversity early in development," Sheri Madigan of the University of Calgary and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute in Canada reportedly told Reuters.

So the researchers first studied 1,994 mothers and their infants. They specifically focused on the mothers’ ACEs and physical and mental health issues during and soon after pregnancy, and on their babies’ development. What they found was that maternal ACEs explained about 12 percent of infants’ developmental delays in communication, motor skills, problem solving and social skills by age 1 Reuters reported.

The second study followed 311 mothers and 122 fathers, and their children through the age of 2, looking at the parents' exposure to ACEs. Children were 18 percent more likely to have developmental delay for each additional ACE mothers experienced, and they had a 34 percent higher risk for each ACE fathers experienced, according to Reuters.

In the third study, researchers looked at the link between ACEs and coping skills in 671 parents after they took sick kids home from the hospital. Sixty-four percent of parents reported experiencing at least one ACE and 19 percent reported experiencing at least four ACEs. The results of the study showed that those in the latter group displayed more difficulty in coping with their children's health issues, according to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center's news.

Study leader Alonzo Folger of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center said, "Accumulating over the life course, [ACE] effects may undermine parenting and relatedly attachment, making it more difficult to handle normal behaviors of infants and toddlers," according to Reuters.

He added that his team increasingly recognized the disruptive nature of toxic stress caused by early life adversity and the importance of early intervention.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) reported that toxic stress, which lasts more than a month, affects both the minds and behavior of very young children who suffer from it, according to Babble.

Fortunately, there is some damage control that could be done. Lead author of the third study, Anita Shah of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said the three studies' results ultimately suggest that parents with ACEs might be able to improve outcomes for their children if they have support, according to Deccan Chronicle.

"For a parent with high ACEs, this may mean reaching out to someone to help them learn how to cope with daily stressors, as well as making sure their children can find ways to cope with toxic stressors," she said, Deccan Chronicle reported.

Seeking therapy and checking in with their child emotionally could help parents end the cycle of toxic stress for both themselves and their children.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.