Improving Family Relationships = Improving Children’s Life-Long Health and Longevity

“A Chronic Public Health Disaster,” “Turning Gold into Lead”

Vincent J. Felitti, MD, a Kaiser physician and co-principal investigator for The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study by the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Kaiser Permanente (San Diego), wrote:

The ACE Study reveals a powerful relationship between our emotional experiences as children and our physical and mental health as adults, as well as the major causes of adult mortality in the United States. It documents the conversion of traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life. How does this happen, this reverse alchemy, turning the gold of a new-born infant into the lead of a depressed, diseased adult? (From “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning gold into lead”) (

The ACE Study reports that “Almost two–thirds of our study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one of five reported three or more ACE.” (

Dr. Robert F. Anda, also a co-principal investigator and co-founder of the ACE Study, calls the situation “a chronic public health disaster” here in the state of Washington:

[T]he chronic disaster that results from ACEs is insidious, constantly rolling out from generation to generation. As evidenced in this report, ACEs are endemic and have strong and myriad effects on the health, quality of life, and functioning of the people of the State of Washington. (From “Adverse Childhood Experiences & Population Health in Washington: The Face of a Chronic Public Health Disaster”)

Parenting for Living Healthier Longer: Some parenting programs do a more effective job.

Dr. Sarah Stewart-Brown, a medical researcher and public health professor in the UK, says:

[P]oor quality parent-child relationships are risk factors for poor health in general and symptoms of poor physical health in childhood and adulthood, as well as cardio-vascular disease, cancer, musculoskeletal problems, injury and mortality in later life. (From her article “Improving parenting: the why and the how,”

Dr. Stewart-Brown then says that parenting programs with “a relationship focus . . . stand a greater chance of influencing the wide range of outcomes . . . than do the strictly behaviour management programmes.” (Behavior management focuses on reward and

Alfie Kohn, in his thoroughly research-based book Unconditional Parenting, says:

The most respectful—and effective—approach to parenting consists of working WITH children rather than doing things TO them. “Working with” parents talk less and listen more. They regularly try to imagine how the world looks from the child’s point of view. They bring kids into the process of decision-making whenever possible.

What Can We Do?

Until the public health community or some other influential group takes leadership, the rest of us can put a high priority on what Dr. Stewart-Brown calls parenting programs “with a relationship focus” and avoid parenting programs with a behavior management focus. We can learn to work WITH, not do TO children, in Alfie Kohn’s terms.

Seattle has taken an important step by funding a Nurse-Family Partnership program here for young, low-income, first-time expectant parents. All first-time parents could benefit from such a program. Health and life insurance companies have a financial interest in people staying well and living longer. Maybe they and health-oriented foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could team up to fund parent education that can improve family relationships. With such funding, parent education could become a regular offering in our schools, family centers, hospitals, preschools, workplaces, and elsewhere.

For 30 years, PSAS co-sponsored its grant-funded, relationship-focused parenting course, Sanity Circus, with local PTAs, schools, and family centers, often with 100-200 grateful parents participating, and it now offers the similar grant- and donation-funded courses Positive Discipline and Disciplina Positiva. Many other agencies and presenters offer relationship-focused courses, some free but most not. It’s time to be sure all interested parents have such opportunities. Maybe we parents (and grandparents?) would live healthier longer, too!

Ann Skutt, Coordinator
Puget Sound Adlerian Society