Close bonds help low-income kids overcome trauma: Study

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Surprise finding shows a child’s feelings about how close he is with parent more important than adult’s perception

Children who experience traumatic events such as physical abuse or family violence at home may have poorer socio-emotional skills in the long run, a new study has shown.

They end up lacking the ability to make good decisions, or are not as aware or able to manage their own emotions and behaviour.

But the key to helping young adolescents build resilience is to form close bonds with their parents or caregivers, said researchers from the Singapore Children’s Society (SCS), which conducted the study.

These findings, published in the society’s research update in February, surfaced from its two-year study of 270 low-income children and their parents, which ended last year.

The aim was to find out how children from low-income families can build resilience. This is the first such study on resilience done locally, according to the SCS, and the team plans to submit its work to an academic journal this year.

The study, which five research officers from SCS worked on, involved children from families with an average monthly gross household income of about $1,465 and a per capita income of $308.

Most lived in rental flats. They were aged 10 to 15 years old, which researchers said is a time of transition when adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can leave a deep impact on adolescents.

ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur during childhood before the age of 18.

In the study, the children indicated the types of ACEs they have encountered, out of a list of 18. The top five most common were witnessing community violence, being bullied, experiencing parental separation, physical abuse and having a household member in prison.

They also filled in a questionnaire about school and family life, rated their socio-emotional competence on a scale, and how close they were with their parents or caregivers.

Socio-emotional abilities refer to understanding one’s feelings and actions, and reading people’s emotions, facial cues and reactions. It also includes staying calm in stressful or new situations, and considering consequences in decision-making.

The parents or caregivers also separately indicated how close they were with their children.

Dr Charlene Fu, SCS’ head of research, said: “We found that children who experienced more ACEs tend to have poorer life satisfaction, poorer school engagement and poorer social-emotional competence.”

This is in line with studies conducted overseas in the past that have found that more ACEs are associated with poorer physical and mental health later in life, she added.

In addition, children who experienced more ACEs also tend to feel less attached to their caregivers. This means that how close the child is to the parents affects how much of an impact the ACEs will have on the child.

This was a surprise, she added, as it shows that the child’s feelings about how close he is with the parent is more important than the parent’s perception of closeness.

Ms Toh Sze Min, one of the study’s researchers, said: “This highlights to us that it is important to consider the views and feelings of children in practice and interventions, and not just to work with the caregivers in interventions.” Children should also be encouraged to express their thoughts, she added.

She said that children from low-income families tend to face more ACEs. “Some of their parents spend a lot of time working as they are struggling to provide for their children. Although they wish to give their family their best, sometimes they just don’t have enough time and unintentionally neglect their relationships with their children.”

Ms Toh added: “Some of these parents have a lot of difficulties on their own and may not have the means to resolve challenges.”

Highlighting the need for socio-emotional skills, Dr Fu said that adolescents who can better manage their emotions tend to be more resilient, and are able to handle ACEs.

“This helps them cope better in difficult life events or stressful situations, as opposed to using unhealthy coping methods or engaging in risky behaviour,” she added.

Ms Toh said the findings of the study show that families and the community must help in nurturing resilience, which is not just an innate trait of a child.

The closeness between a caregiver and a child is an often overlooked but important part of reversing the effects of negative life events, she added.