Adverse (ad’vərs,’advərs; adjective): preventing success or development; harmful; unfavorable.
Definitions matter, because the words we apply to our lives influence whether we feel hopeful or discouraged.
Can a childhood be adverse? Events during childhood can certainly be harmful and unfavorable. And yes, painful formative experiences often limit success and development along conventional avenues. In my own case early loss, trauma, and neglect contributed to unsustainable career choices, nervous breakdowns, conflicted relationships, substance abuse issues, medical problems, and so on.
But let’s look at this another way. What if we define success as overcoming obstacles? What if we define development as adapting to circumstances? Then any childhood that is survived provides an exemplar of success and development.
It’s vital to think in terms of early adversity, because it explains so many of the problems faced by those who experienced it. But we should avoid clinging to the notion of having come from an adverse childhood, from one that prevents success.
It’s tricky. On the one hand, knowing that childhood hardship correlates with later addiction, mental illness, health problems, domestic uproar, etc., can relieve us of shame about adult difficulties. On the other, it can drain us of hope. Doesn’t scientific research (the ACE study, for instance) prove that we’re doomed?
No. It proves we’re at high risk. It proves we have work to do. But statistical risk is not the same as unalterable fate. It’s vital to remember we can learn to cope with the vulnerabilities handed to us by our past. After all, in making it to adulthood we learned tactics that helped ensure survival. We might have grown hypersensitive–the better to detect threats. We might have begun to distrust others–the better to avoid predation. We might have become withdrawn–the better to protect ourselves from hazards.
The ability to shape response to circumstance remains with us. True, habits of behavior that saved the child often fail the adult, and habits can be difficult to break. But both neuroscientific research and effective psychological treatments (such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy–CBT and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy–ACT) demonstrate our lifelong capacity for growth and maturation.
When I was a young adult in the 1980’s, the thinking was different. Back then, no one talked (or knew) about neuroplasticity–the ability of the nervous system to repair and reshape itself. As a neuroscience graduate student, I was under the impression that the brain was a biological computer with an architecture determined by genetics and upbringing, neither of which could be changed. I sought therapy to cope with what the past had done to me but did not expect to correct the damage.
From a psychological standpoint, we live in a much more hopeful era. We now know that our nervous systems continually update their pathways in response to behavior and experience. We can heal and we can grow. Yes, some deeply conditioned responses may prove difficult to fully overcome. But progress is not only possible: it’s inevitable, provided we apply ourselves.
Stroke and accident victims must work hard to rehabilitate after brain insults, but they are much less likely now than formerly to require longterm institutional care. Neural restructuring follows proper therapy, leading to functional gains.
Similarly, survivors of childhood adversity must work hard to build skillful behavior patterns, but they are much less likely now than formerly to remain bound by unhealthy and constricted lifestyles. Behavioral restructuring follows proper therapy, leading to psychological gains. We can learn to dampen emotional reactivity, develop mindfulness, and act in ways that promote physical, emotional, and social well-being. Most importantly, we can gain the courage and discernment needed to protect ourselves when necessary, and to open ourselves when desirable.
Let us define success as growing and maturing, as recognizing that all humans are vulnerable, that all face challenges, and that all can learn. Let us define it, in other words, as becoming more insightful and compassionate versions of our adaptable, capable selves. With such a definition no childhood, no matter how punishing, can prevent us from succeeding. No childhood, in other words, is truly adverse.