Childhood Personality May Affect Adult Health

HealthA study published in the May issue of Health Psychology (currently available as a free download) suggests that personality factors have long-term implications. Laura Kubzansky of Harvard University and her colleagues measured some personality factors in a group of over 500 seven year-olds, and followed up with them 30 years later to find out about their physical health in adulthood.

Among several findings, the authors discovered that a factor they called “distress-proneness” seemed to be tied to adult health. They defined this as a tendency toward “affectively-charged negative reactions,” that is, kids who tend to react very emotionally when frustrated. Rather than relying on parents’ or teachers’ reports, psychologists observed the children and rated them on a number of behaviours. About 30 years later, the subjects were interviewed about their health; they were asked, “Has a doctor ever told you that you have …”

Children rated as low on distress-proneness reported better overall health and fewer illnesses as adults. Of course, the researchers note that there are limitations to their findings; there may be other factors accounting for health and distress-proneness. Nonetheless, the finding is consistent with other research about the benefits of resiliency – children who are better able to deal with and adapt to stressors tend to experience less psychological harm from those stressors over the long term. In addition, individuals high on a personality factor called neuroticism (referring to emotional reactivity to stress) report a greater number of stressors than people who are less reactive! They also tend to use less effective coping strategies, such as hostility in response to frustration.

Luckily, there is research demonstrating that resiliency in the face of stress can be increased. For children, a secure relationship with an adult is protective factor. Programs and interventions aimed at increasing self-esteem may also be helpful. Participation in extracurricular activities has been shown to support the development of self-esteem (we’ve talked quite a bit about that at Family Anatomy), especially if sports are combined with other activities.

So, extracurriculars may be helpful in the development of kids’ self-esteem, but how can parents develop that secure relationship? Faber & Maslish, in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, discuss the importance of validating your child’s feelings; letting them know that you care about how they feel can help them to feel valued, as well as giving the message that they are worth caring about!

You can read more here (full article PDF), here and here.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.

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