Why do some abused children fare well as adults, even as parents?

John Rosemond

John Rosemond

In a letter to the editor of the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Tribune, psychologist Afton Koball and two colleagues raise objections to a recent column in which I asserted that one can be parented badly and still parent well. It comes down to one’s perspective, and is, therefore, a matter of choice. Said another way, parenting is influential but not deterministic.

Koball contends that I am ignoring research linking “high levels of toxic stress in childhood to chronic health conditions and even a reduced lifespan.” Noted, but that was not the subject of the column in question. Furthermore, I contend that even someone who experienced an adverse childhood and suffers compromised health as a result can still be a very good parent.

Furthermore, studies report norms, not individual outcomes. Undoubtedly, there were subjects in the study Koball cites who suffered adverse childhoods but who as adults did not suffer chronic health issues. Some of these individuals may even have had abnormally healthy adulthoods. The “link” in question does not, by a long shot, refer to a one-to-one correspondence. Said otherwise, what is “toxic” stress to some is not to others. The question becomes: How is it that some abused children fare rather well as adults, even as parents?

The list of high-functioning individuals who experienced significant hardship, even abuse, as children is quite long. It includes Oprah, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Louis Armstrong, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Many such individuals attribute their success as adults, at least in part, to the adversity they experienced as kids.

Numerous studies corroborate my contention that it is not abuse or adversity itself that disposes one to a negative outcome, but rather the individual’s mental response to the abuse or adversity. All of these studies — including the ongoing Kauai Longitudinal Study begun in 1955 and a 2010 study done at the University of Oxford — cite folks who did well despite bad childhoods.

Koball ends his letter by saying that people who have experienced adverse childhoods need counseling. That is psychology’s central narrative, but speaking of studies, no consistent body of research compels the conclusion that any form of mental health counseling/therapy can be relied upon to produce positive results. In fact, a significant percentage of consumers report that mental health counseling was a negative experience, that it made matters worse.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 10, 2017), clinical psychologist Meg Jay shares the story of two brothers raised in a home in which the father was a violent alcoholic. One brother is a drinker and an abuser, while the other is abstinent and a model parent. When asked how they came to be who they were, both brothers gave the same answer: “Given who my father was, how could I not?”

The anecdote illustrates my point: Whether flight or fight, an individual’s response to adversity is clearly a matter of choice. As the old parenting proverb has it, every child has a mind of his own.

Visit family psychologist John Rosemond’s website at www.johnrosemond.com; readers may send him email at questions@rosemond.com; due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.