Childhood Chaos Could Be a Blessing

Children who grow up in a stressful tumultuous household with both parents could be far worse off than growing up in a single-parent home. Living with one or both alcoholic or drug addicted parents is probably a life not worth remembering. Children brought up with physical abuse, harsh punishment and beatings however, is rarely ever forgotten. All these children grow up with fear, stress, and depression, as well as guilt and some even blame themselves for everything that’s wrong in the family.

Many families live in poverty where the unloved child is viewed as an unwanted burden and therefore neglected. What good could possibly result from such an awful situation? It’s true that some children have difficulty rising above their circumstances. Some are left permanently impaired, and eventually have a family exactly like they one they come from, rarely living up to their potential.

Psychological Strengths

Some children however, emerge from their trying childhood much stronger, keener and wiser than anyone would expect. Recent studies have shown that individuals who had stressful, chaotic childhoods exhibited enhanced skills detecting and assessing threats of various kinds and recalling negative events, according to a Psychology Today article entitled “Up From Chaos.” “Research on young people from troubled environments usually focuses on what they are bad at,” says Jeanmarie Bianchi of Wilson College. Her goal has been to uncover the psychological strengths of this population. “Because we know very little about what they are good at.”

Fast or Slow Strategy

According to researcher Vladas Griskevicius at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, people generally structure their lives depending on their childhood environment. For example, those who grew up in a safe, predictable family setting with adequate resources tend to employ “slow” strategies: study hard, put off marriage, and stay on course. Those who grew up with considerable upheaval tend toward “fast” strategies and may take a smaller immediate reward instead of a larger payoff later.

In controlled tests of two groups, one group grew up in an unpredictable environment and another group was raised in more privileged circumstances. The under-privileged group did as expected. However, when the tests changed to task shifting, the under-privileged group outperformed the privileged group. They were faster at shifting focus without losing accuracy.

Stressed Childhood Better Preparation for Adulthood

When analyzing the results, developmental psychologist Bruce Ellis of the University of Utah, explained that individuals raised in stressful environments have a greater willingness to leave something unfinished, showing a lack of perfectionism that helps them do what is necessary without dwelling on what could have been, as opposed to those of privileged childhoods that routinely expect perfection. Those growing up with turmoil had a sense that even during good times they were living on borrowed time and disaster was just around the corner (and usually was), making those adults highly flexible, with a greater willingness to take significant risks with little hesitation.

People who grew up in an unpredictable environment also have a better working memory, and the ability to forget information no longer relevant in favor or newer data that is relevant, according to Chirag Mittal of Texas A&M University.

Growing up in an environment that is in constant stress makes people more aware of and responsive to changes in their environment. They may be quicker to perceve that they have incorrect information and will move to change their behavior accordingly. Conversely, people brought up in stable environments may stick with “the rules” even in the face of negative results, whereas individuals who grew up in stressful backgrounds may be quicker to explore other possibilities and discover more novel situations.

In addition, those growing up in stable, privileged environments receiving high parental praise but lacking in competition have too little experience with loss and disappointment. As adults they lack confidence, resilience and decisiveness.

Re-evaluating stressed childhoods is part of a larger study of the mental and pysical impact of stress and the effect of norepinephrine, a chemical messager that is triggered to help us pay attention.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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