In the first study to analyze more than a decade of research showing how a family’s social environment influences physical and mental health, a team of UCLA scientists found strong evidence that children who grow up in “risky families” often suffer lifelong health problems, including some of society’s most common serious ailments, such as cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety disorders, as well as early death.
The UCLA scientists found large numbers of studies that reveal a pattern of serious long-term health consequences for children who grow up in homes marked by conflict, anger and aggression; that are emotionally cold, unsupportive; and where children’s needs are neglected. Some diseases do not show up until decades later, while others are evident by adolescence.
“Poor health begins early in life, as does good health,” said Rena Repetti, associate professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of the article, in the current issue of the journal Psychological Bulletin. “Growing up in risky families creates a cascade of risk, beginning early in life, which puts a child not only at immediate risk, but also at long-term and lifelong risk for a wide variety of physical and mental health ailments.”
Repetti and her colleagues spent six years analyzing more than 500 psychological, medical and biological research studies, and integrated the findings of psychologists, pediatricians, biologists, neuroscientists, social workers and other scientists. Her co-authors are Shelley Taylor, UCLA professor of psychology, and Teresa Seeman, UCLA professor of medicine.
While many people separate physical and mental health, research shows that physical and mental health may not be as separate as is often assumed, and that our brains and bodies may be more closely connected, Repetti said.
The research studies reveal that a child’s genetic predispositions interact with the environment, and in risky families, a child’s genetic risk may be exacerbated. This combination can lead to the faster development of health problems, which may be more debilitating than they would be in a more nurturing family, Repetti said.
Children who grow up in risky families are also more likely as teenagers and adults to engage in drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, risky sexual behavior, and aggressive, anti-social behavior, the UCLA analysis showed.
Many of the studies analyzed provide evidence that teenagers who abuse drugs and engage in risky sex are more likely to have hostile, unsatisfying and non-supportive relationships with their parents, Repetti said.
“Substance abuse and risky sexual behavior may help these adolescents compensate for their emotional, social and biological deficiencies,” Repetti said. “Early and promiscuous sexual behavior and substance use may help adolescents manage negative emotions and feel accepted in the absence of adequate emotion coping strategies or social skills. Some of these risky health behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-medicate some of the deficits in brain neurochemistry that may occur in risky families.
“It may be the kids who are most lacking in social skills, problem-solving and conflict-management skills who are most likely to turn to substance abuse or risky sexual behavior as a way to gain acceptance,” she said. “If the family environment was supportive and nurturing all along, they would be more likely to have the social skills to gain acceptance by their peers and the ability to regulate their emotions. Healthy families enable children to grow up without the need for risky behavior to address these deficits.”
Children who observe family members responding to conflict by yelling and hitting often grow up without learning the problem-solving skills that other children learn, Repetti said.
Children who grow up in high-conflict or abusive homes are also much more vigilant to threats than other children and may overreact to minor threats. That vigilance, which may protect them from dangers at home, can cause them social problems later when they make hostile attributions to what may be innocent actions by others.
“When they trip over another child’s foot on the schoolyard, they are ready for a fight because they believe the other child did it on purpose,” Repetti said. “They make the hostile attribution, while a child who grew up in a less angry and aggressive family is more likely to consider the possibility that it was just an accident. That vigilance and those hostile attributions may get children in trouble in school, but in high-conflict and aggressive homes, vigilance for threat and assuming hostile intent may actually protect them from harm.”
The studies show that in addition to suffering from a wide variety of physical health problems, children from families marked by conflict and aggression are at an increased risk for behavioral and emotional problems, including aggression, delinquency, depression, anxiety and suicide, Repetti said. She added that the accumulation of evidence from many different kinds of studies is “overwhelming.”
Poverty and the descent into poverty often “appear to move parenting in more harsh, punitive, and coercive directions,” Repetti said, although risky families are also found in middle- and upper-income homes.