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Childhood stress as a wall against future success

In his latest column, "The Psych Approach," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about childhood stressors that impair opportunity for adult success. [I quote from Brooks's piece at the bottom of this blogpost.]

I feel one thing I know most absolutely about Homeless World is that the adult homeless in our city, by overwhelming number, have had difficult-to-horrible childhoods.

I know this from talking to my brethren homeless at the mission. But I know this most clearly from the reaction of the guys in the chapel seats when a Union Gospel Mission preacher remarks at length about his difficult upbringing and there is then a buzz of quiet conversation as the guys talk to their neighbors, saying things like, “Yeah. My childhood was like this.” or “For my mom, it was heroin.”

I know this, too, from participating, a couple years ago, in Side-by-Side sessions at Friendship Park where homeless people would talk about their difficulties, including shite from their early life.

Clearly, always, there are a great many guys who relate to the destructive atmosphere of their childhood when the mission preachers get into these sorts of topics, which can include the preachers talking about being absent and selfish fathers while raising young kids.  The dysfunctional-family situations carry forward to new generations, and many homeless men know this intimately.

From the distance of decades, and with a need to be macho, the homeless guys review their childhoods with bemusement regarding how terrible it all was when they were little.

There seems not to be any tendency to exaggerate: Looking back, they see it all as being profoundly ridiculous – something they survived that lives only as a somewhat-fuzzy memory of hapless past antipathy and inequities. And pain. Certainly musing about childhood brings memory of pain, both physical and emotional.

I’ve heard stories of incredibly selfish fathers. One, a sole parent, would take his kids on vacation at a lake and then fully desert them to spend all his time water skiing with longtime pals from high school and college. This kind of behavior was repeated in myriad ways in the life of the boy, now a highly intelligent, but in ways plenty resentful, homeless man.

Another father deserted his family to a life of poverty, got a lover and got rich and fully ignored his young boys. But when he needed muscle to move the new woman's things from her apartment into his big new house, he got the boys to do all the work of the move. The father left them to the task with only baloney sandwiches for a break. The boys got no money and not even gratitude for all that they did. But most crushing, there wasn’t even bare acknowledgment, or word from the father days and weeks afterward.

Another father would punch holes in the walls throughout the house when under the thrall of a powerful anger. Pictures were hung in the house in what seemed like odd places, but they were only there to cover the holes and present a falsified impression of family stability.

Another man had a mother who would react angrily to a bedwetting problem the man had as a boy. The boy couldn’t prevent himself from wetting the bed on occasion. Even when he was as old as ten, when an instance occurred, the mother would put the boy out on the front lawn in the morning to sit there naked as punishment. As a result, the boy was laughed at and taunted by other children living in the cul-de-sac where he resided.  The boy lived alone with his unstable mother and the neighborhood kids wouldn't play with him.

From other stories: A lot of parents or caretakers were into drink or drugs or pornography that negatively colored family life. Often, family life was endless arguments and frequent violence or one of complete instability such that the child was always disoriented, always in a new place.

These children I’m talking about are adults now, but in all this there have been streams of situations where  troubled souls have been functionally homeless the whole of their uncomfortable lives.

Here, prime quotes from the Brooks column I began this blogpost mentioning:
In Paul Tough’s essential book, “How Children Succeed,” he describes what’s going on. Childhood stress can have long lasting neural effects, making it harder to exercise self-control, focus attention, delay gratification and do many of the other things that contribute to a happy life.

Tough’s book is part of what you might call the psychologizing of domestic policy. In the past several decades, policy makers have focused on the material and bureaucratic things that correlate to school failure, like poor neighborhoods, bad nutrition, schools that are too big or too small. But, more recently, attention has shifted to the psychological reactions that impede learning — the ones that flow from insecure relationships, constant movement and economic anxiety.

Attention has shifted toward the psychological for several reasons. First, it’s become increasingly clear that social and emotional deficits can trump material or even intellectual progress. Schools in the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, are among the best college prep academies for disadvantaged kids. But, in its first survey a few years ago, KIPP discovered that three-quarters of its graduates were not making it through college. It wasn’t the students with the lower high school grades that were dropping out most. It was the ones with the weakest resilience and social skills. It was the pessimists.

Second, over the past few years, an array of psychological researchers have taught us that motivation, self-control and resilience are together as important as raw I.Q. and are probably more malleable.

Schools are now casting about, trying to find psychological programs that will help students work on resilience, equanimity and self-control. Some schools give two sets of grades — one for academic work and one for deportment.

And it’s not just schools that are veering deeper into the psychological realms. Health care systems are going the same way, tracing obesity and self-destructive habits back to social breakdown and stress.

When you look over the domestic policy landscape, you see all these different people in different policy silos with different budgets: in health care, education, crime, poverty, social mobility and labor force issues. But, in their disjointed ways, they are all dealing with the same problem — that across vast stretches of America, economic, social and family breakdowns are producing enormous amounts of stress and unregulated behavior, which dulls motivation, undermines self-control and distorts lives.

Maybe it’s time for people in all these different fields to get together in a room and make a concerted push against the psychological barriers to success.

For the record, I have an ACE score of 5, which is surely lower than most homeless Sacramentans. Take the test yourself -- a simple measure of how difficult your childhood was -- which was used in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.


Anonymous said…
Very good post. I have known many homeless people and they have told me their stories of child abuse and neglect. I posted a link to this story on my blog. Keep up the good work.
Thanks mightily, TJ, for the kind words and the shout.

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