Neuroscience shows that the first seven years of life are foundational to a child's development. Children are like sponges and are learning from everything in their environment, especially language. This sponge-like effect is due to a few factors, such as cognitive flexibility, neuroplasticity, and brain wave states during infancy and childhood. Children utilize brain wave states known as theta, which are essential for active learning in infancy. Theta waves, in essence, put a child into a glorious goo state where they receive information without a solid filter analyzing and discriminating information. Children start discerning right from wrong, empathizing, lying, and helping others between 2 and 3 years of age.
The infant's brain has also been making memories since its time in utero and can recognize different speech patterns of family members after birth.
Our earliest experiences can impact our lives as adults, which is why early childhood relationships must have a positive effect, as this influences learning, behavior, and health later in life.
How much of who we are is shaped by our genes vs our early childhood experiences?
And how does randomness play a role in the risk of developing a mental health disorder or addiction?
Randomness is "the quality or state of lacking a pattern or principle of organization." Some examples of randomness are the cocktail of genes you received based on the specific sperm and egg that met to form inimitable codes to make you the truly unique individual you are. Another example of randomness is maternal factors, such as how behaviors influence epigenetic changes in the neural development of the fetus. Even neurological changes in the mother can affect the fetus later in life. An example is the increased risk that the offspring of a depressed mother will also develop depression.
These chance events that occur in utero shape who we are far more than environmental factors and at least as much as the individual's genetics do.
When considering mental illnesses like addiction and depression to other psychological dysfunctions such as schizophrenia, sociopathy, or borderline personality disorder, how much is nature vs nurture?
Schizophrenia (like depression) is also an illness that begins in utero due to a Dysregulated nFGFR1 pathway. Genetic expressions and a traumatic event during childhood, plus socioecological influences such as environment, interpersonal relationships, socioeconomic status, and zip code, determine the development of depression.
Does Antisocial Personality Disorder develop in the same way?
Studies demonstrate that "early exposure to relational trauma in childhood plays a significant role in the development of more severe psychopathic traits" (Craparo, 2013).
Psychopathy is a neuropsychiatric disorder and appears to be the result of both nature and nurture in its development. Still, it does have vital genetic influences, such as the functionality of neural networks within the paralimbic regions of the brain and how they influence emotion. It should be noted that the majority of psychopaths aren't actually violent but instead are successful CEOs, university administrators, doctors, lawyers, and blue-collar workers. According to the American Psychological Association, 30% of Americans display some level of sociopathic behavior, which implies it is on a spectrum like autism spectrum disorder.
Sociopathy, on the other hand, seems to be a result of more nurturing aspects, such as a lack of care from the birth parents during a child's development.
Sociopaths are also less likely to hold a job and are more likely to end up in prison.
According to the latest research on twins, findings suggest that DNA accounts for half of the difference in siblings' behavioral outcomes, such as one's likeliness to be happy or resilient. Upbringing accounted for 0-17% of influence outside intelligence factors, which upbringing can impact by 25%.
Trauma is defined as an emotional response to an extreme event like a rape, natural disaster, or accident.
About 50-60% of people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime, but most aren't chronically impacted. 20% will develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which is about 10% of the US population.
In the US, 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse. This is no doubt an underestimate because most cases of abuse among children aren't reported. In 2020, 1,750 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States.
Studies also confirm that individuals who experienced more than four traumatic events during childhood are three times more likely to develop an alcohol addiction.
It can't be argued that trauma increases the risk of developing addiction, but how much do genes contribute to the likeliness?
According to research studies, genetics contributes to 40-60% of the likelihood that an individual will develop an addiction. This doesn't mean that the individual will become addicted to a substance or behavior. It does mean individuals with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism should take extra measures to ameliorate any potential risks, such as finding healthy prevention strategies.
Considering the impact that childhood trauma has on activating gene expressions, upstream approaches to intervention seem to be a foundational place to start implementing preventive measures.
What's even more staggering is the rate of homelessness among youth today.
1 in 30 young people and 1 in 10 young adults experience homelessness annually.
Prevention- Targeting Today’s Youth
It takes a generation to change a behavior or social norm, and the most effective way to make changes is by targeting future generations.
So many illnesses and addictions are multigenerational, and our children are looking to us as examples of how to behave, how to make healthy choices, and how they impact society as well as their efficacy in the world.
So, what are some potential solutions to reducing the likelihood that at-risk youth face developing a mental illness, addiction, or homelessness?
Public health efforts can ensure that at-risk youth have access to preventive services via the school's healthcare system that can screen for depression, trauma, instability within the home, and school disengagement. These risk factors are all signs that point the way to future homelessness, trauma, and an increased risk for addiction and mental illness later in life.
Empowering youth is essential, and the most effective way to achieve this standard is through education and increasing self-efficacy.
Youth programs aim to do just that. Adolescents and young adults are taught to ask for help, to understand that mental health challenges are expected, real, and treatable, as well as how to take proper care of their minds and bodies. They are also taught tools to set goals and budgets and learn fundamental skills like ethics, morals, and stress management.
Core resources and tools that adolescents and young adults can utilize are support groups, therapy, and alternative therapies like yoga and meditation paired with education on nutrition and how to live a healthy lifestyle.
Creating safe spaces where at-risk teens can congregate and decompress also makes youth groups and centers essential for prevention and increasing the chances for success as adults.
The children and adolescents of today are the future of tomorrow, and they could be revered as precious assets to an ever-increasing aging population. This is a fundamental reason, among many others, that our youth matter significantly to the future of society and the earth.
Fredrick Douglas says, "It is easier to build strong children than fix broken men."
It should be noted that in cases of childhood abuse, environmental impact has a much more significant effect on behavior.