By Joan Ogeto
There is a Connection between Childhood Trauma and Depression in Adulthood
Childhood trauma can have a profound impact on an individual’s mental health. Research indicates that experiences of trauma during childhood can contribute to the development of mental health issues later in life. In addition, parenting styles are known to have a significant influence on the growth and well-being of children, with each approach having distinct effects on
children’s future behaviors. While parenting is such a complex task, developmental psychologists have been studying its impact on children for decades. While it can be challenging to establish a direct cause and effect relationship between parental behavior and child outcomes, experts agree that parenting styles play a critical role in shaping a child’s mental health. Unfortunately, some parenting styles have detrimental effects on children that persist into adulthood.
As is evident, today’s society is heavily plagued by various mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse. Depression is currently the third primary contributor to the global burden of disease, and is the leading cause of deaths in countries with middle and high income. Many studies have linked these issues to various childhood experiences, among them childhood trauma, parental trauma and to an extent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The manner in which parents interact with their children is called parenting style, and this includes anyone with the primary responsibility of being a caregiver.
Parenting style is influenced by various factors such as the parent’s temperament, education, culture, social status, and partner. Studies have shown that a negative family environment, including parental rejection and abuse, can lead to development of social anxiety and depression. Life transitions, such as those that occur during development, can create anxiety and uncertainty, and social anxiety disorder tends to have peak onsets in adolescence and early adulthood, which can persist into adulthood.
There have been several theories proposed by psychologists and researchers on the link between parenting styles and the development of mental health issues in adulthood. One of the earliest and most well-known is the attachment theory, which was developed by John Bowlby in the 1950s. According to this theory, a child’s early experiences with their caregiver shapes their attachment style, which in turn influences their social and emotional development throughout their life. Bowlby identified three main attachment styles; secure, insecure- avoidant, and insecure-anxious. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that individuals with a secure attachment style had better mental health outcomes compared to those with insecure attachment styles. Individuals with a secure attachment style were less likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety in adulthood than those with insecure attachment styles.
Another theory that has gained traction in recent years is the parenting styles theory, which was first proposed by psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s. Baumrind identified three main parenting styles; authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. Authoritative parenting is characterized by high levels of warmth and support, combined with consistent and reasonable discipline. Parents who practice authoritative parenting provide clear rules and expectations while also being responsive to their children’s needs. Studies have shown that children raised by authoritative parents are more likely to have positive mental health outcomes in adulthood, including greater self-esteem. Authoritarian parenting in contrast is characterized by strict rules and high expectations, with little warmth or support. Parents who practice authoritarian parenting enforce rules through punishment rather than reasoning or negotiation. Studies have shown that children raised by authoritarian parents are at increased risk for developing mental health issues in adulthood.
One of the key aspects of parenting is instilling discipline to correct behavior. However, there exists a fine line between disciplining and using fear as a means to control a child’s behavior to achieve obedience. It is important for parents to strike a balance and avoid using fear-based tactics in their disciplinary practices. Interestingly, research in the field of psychology has drawn parallels between the phenomenon of obedience to authority and parenting practices. In particular, the famous Milgram study of obedience sheds light on how individuals can be influenced to engage in harmful behavior under the direction of authority figures.
The Milgram study involved participants who were instructed to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to a learner whenever they made a mistake in a memory task. Despite the learners expressing distress, the majority of participants continued to administer the shocks up to the highest voltage level, simply because they were instructed to do so by the authority figure conducting the experiment. This research emphasizes the significance of challenging and analyzing directives provided by people in authoritative roles, and assessing if obedience is being utilized to encourage desirable conduct or to exert domination and intimidation. When it comes to parenting, it is essential to contemplate whether obedience is being employed to promote positive behavior or if it is being utilized to instill fear and control.
Authoritative parenting is characterized by high levels of warmth and support, combined with consistent and reasonable discipline. Parents who practice authoritative parenting provide clear rules and expectations while also being responsive to their children’s needs. Studies have shown that children raised by authoritative parents are more likely to have positive mental health outcomes in adulthood, including greater self-esteem. Authoritarian parenting in contrast is characterized by strict rules and high expectations, with little warmth or support. Parents who practice authoritarian parenting enforce rules through punishment rather than reasoning or negotiation. Studies have shown that children raised by authoritarian parents are at increased risk for developing mental health issues in adulthood.
African cultures in particular are often associated with the utilization of fear and abuse as common means of discipline and control towards children. These methods can manifest in various forms, including physical punishment like whipping, beating and spanking, as well as verbal abuse through taunting and even body language. In the article titled ‘’Spare the rod, spoil the colony; Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya,” written by Paul Ocobock, the author explains how the European colonizers in Kenya frequently employed corporal punishment on the local population as a means of punishment for wrongdoing.
Subsequently, these methods were adopted by the Kenyan natives in their own households and became normalized as the primary approach to instilling discipline in children within African communities. There is a wide range of opinions regarding the effects of different disciplinary approaches in both medical and secular literature. After conducting a thorough review of the research available on disciplinary spanking, the Psychosocial Paediatrics Committee of the Canadian Paediatric Society concluded that spanking and other forms of physical punishment are linked to unfavorable outcomes for children. As a result, the Canadian Paediatric Society strongly advised against the use of disciplinary spanking and all other physical punishments.
In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the negative impact of such disciplinary techniques on children’s development. As a result, Kenya implemented various legal measures to discourage parents and educators from using these methods as a form of discipline. The Constitution of Kenya, 2010, under Article 29, provides for the right to freedom and security of every individual, which includes protection from any form of violence, torture, corporal punishment, or inhumane and degrading treatment. Additionally, Article 53(1) reiterates that every child has the right to be safeguarded against abuse, neglect, harmful cultural practices, all forms of violence, inhuman treatment and punishment, and hazardous or exploitative labor.
Children Act 2001, which previously affirmed the common law right of parents and others to administer reasonable punishment to children under article 127, was repealed with the introduction of the Children Act 2022. According to article 25 (3) (b) (c) of the Children Act 2022, all forms of corporal paunishment, including torture or any other inhumane or degrading treatment towards a child, are prohibited under the Constitution 2010. Any individual who subjects a child to such punishment will be committing an offense and will be held accountable under the Prevention of Torture Act upon conviction. Furthermore, under the Constitution, corporal punishment is unlawful in all settings of early childhood care and all-day care facilities.
Under the Constitution, corporal punishment is illegal in schools. The Basic Education Act 2013 confirms this prohibition in Article 4, which prohibits any form of cruel or inhuman treatment, including corporal punishment. Article 36 of the same Act prohibits any form of physical or psychological torture, with violators facing fines or imprisonment. Teachers are required to protect children from abuse, discrimination, violence, inhuman treatment, and corporal punishment. Similarly, Article 16 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) requires states to safeguard children from any form of torture or inhumane or degrading treatment by caregivers. It also emphasizes that discipline must be carried out while respecting the child’s dignity, and parents and other caregivers must fulfill this responsibility.
In February 2020, a tragic event occurred at Kakamega Primary School, resulting in the deaths of 15 students due to a stampede. The school was held responsible for the incident and was ordered to pay a sum of over one million Kenyan shillings for each life lost. The stampede occurred as the students were rushing down a narrow and poorly lit stairway after a teacher yelled at them. The teacher’s actions triggered a fear response in the students, ultimately leading to the tragic event. This demonstrates that inducing fear in children can prompt certain behaviors that may result in unfortunate consequences.
Having a history of childhood maltreatment is a risk factor for developing depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders in adulthood. Research indicates that individuals who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have a higher likelihood of attempting suicide compared to those who have not. Furthermore, risky alcohol use is the fourth leading preventable cause of death among adults. A strong association between risky alcohol use and depression has been demonstrated, with depression potentially contributing to the development of alcohol use disorders. Mental instability involves unhealthy emotional coping mechanisms, such as being unaware of, unable to control, or not having effective strategies for managing intense emotions, as well as avoiding emotional distress even when pursuing meaningful activities.
Children who have suffered from abuse or neglect are at risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by symptoms like persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic events linked to the maltreatment, avoiding situations and people associated with the abuse, and experiencing fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame. They may also exhibit hyper vigilance, irritability, and other mood changes. If left untreated, PTSD can result in depression, substance abuse, suicidal behavior, and oppositional or defiant behaviors that can affect the child’s ability to form and maintain important relationships, and succeed academically well into adulthood.
Nonetheless, the relationship of childhood trauma and an increased risk of depression in adulthood has been confirmed in several cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Ultimately, parents should strive to establish a supportive and nurturing environment for their children, where they feel safe to express themselves and make mistakes. Effective discipline can be achieved through the use of positive reinforcement and clear communication, rather than relying on fear-based tactics that can have long-lasting negative effects on a child’s mental health and well-being.
The writer is a Lawyer -LLB (Hons) Keele University
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019). Long-term consequences of child abuse and
Human Rights Watch. (1999).https://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/kenya/Kenya999-02.htm
Negele, A., Kaufhold, J., Kallenbach, L., & Leuzinger-Bohleber, M. (2015). Childhood Trauma and
Its Relation to Chronic Depression in Adulthood. National Library of Medicine.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4677006/
Odongo, G. Kenyan Law on corporal punishments.https://journals.co.za/doi/pdf/10.10520/AJA0000002_77
Shukla, N. (2022). Parenting Style’s Impact on Children’s Behaviour. Journal of National
Development. Vol. 35, p 73-81.https://jndmeerut.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Volume- 35-No.-2-Winter-2022.pdf#page=73
The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), Articles 10, 20, 21
The Basic Education Act, 2013 ;The Children’s Bill, 2021;
The Constitution of Kenya, Article 29, 53
Toth, S., & Cicchetti, D. (2013). A Developmental Psychopathology Perspective on Child
Maltreatment. National Library of Medicine.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4520222/
Schick, M., Weiss, N., Dixon-Gordon, K., & Spillane, N. (2019). Depression and Risky Alcohol Use:
An Examination of the Role of Difficulties Regulating Positive Emotions in Trauma-Exposed
Individuals. National Library of Medicine.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6450725/