Pediatricians Teri Pettersen (l) and RJ Gillespie (r) ___________________________________
The Children’s Clinic, tucked in a busy office park five miles outside downtown Portland, OR, and bustling with noisy babies, boisterous kids and energetic pediatricians, seems ordinary enough. But, for the last two years, a quiet revolution has been brewing in its exam rooms: When parents bring their four-month-old babies in for well-baby checkups, they talk about their own childhood trauma with their kid’s pediatrician.
Wait. What’s Mom or Dad’s childhood got to do with the health of their baby? And aren’t pediatricians supposed to take care of kids? Not kids’ parents?
It turns out that just 14 questions about the childhood experiences of parents provide information critical to the future health of their baby, say Children’s Clinic pediatricians Teri Pettersen and RJ Gillespie. The answer to the questions can help determine not only if the child will succeed in school, but when the child becomes an adult, whether she or he is likely to suffer chronic disease, mental illness, become violent or a victim of violence.
They explain how this is possible.
It’s an understatement to say that raising a kid is a challenge, and not for the faint of heart. The many stressful moments of an infant or a toddler’s life include tantrums, colic, toilet training, sleep problems, colds, hitting and biting, say Pettersen and Gillespie.
“At some point, a toddler is likely to hit or bite Mom and Dad,” says Pettersen. “How will they respond?”
If parents have grown up with a lot of adversity in their lives and little help in understanding how that adversity affects their behavior and how they react to stress, they’re more likely to pass that on to their children, even if they don’t intend to, by reacting without thinking in typical “fight, flight or fright (freeze)” mode. They may hit the child, walk away from the child who’s asking for attention (albeit in a negative way), or freeze, only to be bitten or hit some more. None of that helps grow a healthy child or a healthy relationship between the parent and child.
Long story short: The physicians at the Children’s Clinic believe that asking parents about their own childhood adversity is a good start to preventing their children from experiencing childhood trauma.