Childhood Exposure to Hunger and Adversity – “Put it like this: it haunts me”
“If a person always says you’re nothing; you’re nothing,” explained Tamira,* a mother who participated in our research study, “Childhood Stress.” The Childhood Stress study, results of which were recently published in Public Health Nutrition, sought to investigate childhood adversity among parents and caregivers who reported household food insecurity. In this study, the research team and I sat in living rooms, cars, and local libraries with each of the thirty-one mothers of young children under age 4. In these recorded conversations, the moms provided their insights about how they got to where they are now, what their childhoods were like, and what they hoped for their own children.
As part of our interviews with the mothers, we asked about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), a measure that includes abuse, neglect, and household instability before the age of 18. These experiences, which child development researchers refer to as toxic stress, have profound effects on lifelong health and wellbeing. In interviews sometimes lasting several hours, participants told us about events and experiences in their lives, both good and bad, which they felt had an impact on their current financial security and wellbeing.
Tamira explained that as her family told her she was “nothing,” she began to believe it herself. She continued, “Then for a while I used to think I’m not anything. So maybe that’s a part of how I don’t have a job or I couldn’t finish school… Because I can’t find a job I cannot feed my daughter. How am I supposed to? I cannot buy her what she needs.”
Tamira described the abuse and neglect she experienced during her childhood, and how it affected her mental health, self-esteem, and her ability to finish her education and get a job that pays a living wage. Tamira’s experience was similar to the majority of the mothers with whom we spoke.
Two-thirds of the mothers we interviewed reported four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, a cutoff at which researchers often find serious negative health outcomes. Those who reported very low food insecurity—that is, limiting their food intake, disordered eating patterns, and experiences of hunger—were more likely to report four or more ACEs. This reflects what has been found in other studies using the ACE measure, which show that ACEs are associated with mental and physical health problems, academic challenges, and unemployment. In this study, we see that it is also linked to hunger.
While some of the mothers described loving homes and supportive families, others whom we interviewed described harrowing experiences. Naitana* described being held at Guantanamo Bay after emigrating from Haiti with her mother, losing her mother to AIDS, and being abused in a foster home. Claudia* described chronic hunger in her adolescence when she lived in an abandoned house with other teens after her father, who struggled with alcoholism after her parents’ divorce, became physically abusive. When we asked Claudia about how her experiences had affected her, she told us, “Put it like this: it haunts me.”
The life events described by the participants show that deep poverty is connected with exposure to violence and abuse. The violence exposure affected their ability to do well in school, to learn new skills, and perform well on the job—all related to poverty and food insecurity.
There’s a lot of hope and resilience in our interviews, too. Tamira experienced severe emotional abuse, but she also described her own devotion to her daughter, who was a source of strength and inspiration for her. When we spoke with her, she had enrolled in community college to become a nursing assistant. She expressed determination to ensure that her daughter would grow up in a stable, loving home where she would always have the things she needed.
I am grateful to have learned from the women whom we interviewed – to have witnessed their strength, resilience, and determination that their children should not experience the same adversity. But I am also disheartened the systems meant to help families are not picking up on some of their most important needs or promoting their goals for their children. Our safety net, meant to provide nutrition and income assistance, housing support, and behavioral health support, is disjointed and poorly coordinated. According to the moms we spoke with, social service providers often re-traumatize families through punitive policies and negative attitudes that stigmatize those seeking help.
This study has been difficult for us, because examining the relationship between food insecurity and adverse experiences in childhood may simply add more stigma to families already stigmatized and blamed for the hardships that they face. The context of childhood adversity merits more discussion, and will be covered in future blog posts on this topic. It’s important to be clear that childhood adversity is one factor interrelated with many others, including low wages, insufficiently and inequitably funded education systems, racism and discrimination, lack of safe and affordable housing, and an inadequate safety net.
Our country has to do more to develop better programs and policies that support families, including: safe and affordable housing; access to behavioral health services; and public assistance programs that recognize the widespread prevalence of trauma and violence exposure, and avoid subjecting families to additional trauma. As Claudia told us, hunger and deprivation can “haunt” for a lifetime, and become like “a bird nesting in your head.” If we do nothing to change our systems, adversity will continue to haunt all of us.
*Participants are identified by a pseudonym.
-- Molly Knowles, MPH is the qualitative research coordinator at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University School of Public Health.