It is almost a given, the scientists tell us, that childhood adversity can lead to a myriad of adult psychosocial behavioral problems.
Or, as a member of the street gang the Jets sings in "West Side Story," "Yeah, I'm depraved on account-a I'm deprived . . ."
Deprivation, however, doesn't always lead to depravity, or even misery. Certain children designated as "at risk" grow up to be happy and well-adjusted. Somehow they are survivors.
Researchers are more and more concentrating their attention on determining how and why these survivors "make it," rather than focusing on the rehabilitation of those who can't.
In one recent study of deprived girls in London, an adult follow-up showed that a good husband and a positive school experience--not necessarily academic--were major survival factors.
And in a separate study published recently in the British medical journal, The Lancet, researchers were able to predict successfully families where there was a strong likelihood of child abuse.
Although most of the abuse occurred in families designated "at risk," not all of those families produced abused children. Again, there were "survivors."
At the same time, although professional "supportive measures" seemed able to ward off serious injuries to the abused children, no overall protection against abuse or neglect was found.
It becomes a matter of identifying the survival factors that permit a change in, as the article put it, " 'the world of abnormal rearing' that leads to child abuse in succeeding generations."
Dr. Michael L. Rutter, one of Great Britain's preeminent child psychiatrists, and a group of his colleagues at the University of London, did their research on a group of women who had been reared in one of several London institutions run on a "cottage" basis. Rutter and his colleagues were more successful than the child-abuse researchers in identifying the sets of circumstances that seemed to bring about a happier outcome. Their conclusions suggest strongly that even in adulthood, the effects of a childhood filled with adversity can be overcome if somewhere along the line the individual is given a sense of self-worth and a feeling that some control over the future can be exerted.
At a recent presentation sponsored by the Staff College of the National Institute of Mental Health, Rutter described the research involving the institution-reared women as well as a comparison group from the same inner-London area who grew up in their own homes, reared by their own parents.
The groups were interviewed first in 1964 when they were age 7 to 12 and again, in January of 1978, when they were 21 to 27. There were 94 women at the start and follow-ups were done on 81. Of the comparison group's 51 original subjects, follows were done on all but 10.
There were hours-long interviews with the subjects themselves, with their husbands (or partners) where possible and, when there were children between the ages of 2 to 3 1/2, observations of mother/child interaction.
Indeed, most of the institution-reared girls did grow up to be troubled young women, poor mothers, with a high rate of teen pregnancy, emotional behavioral disturbances, substance abuse, criminal records and with a poor likelihood of a stable relationship with a spouse or sexual partner. Few of the women in the comparison group had these problems.
But the surprise was that a sizable minority of the institutionally reared women, perhaps a third, showed no major problems at the follow-up interviews. The best mothers with the least psychosocial problems and the fewest personality disorders were those who had a supportive marital (or cohabiting) relationship.
Said Rutter, "The findings suggested that the spouse's good qualities exerted a powerful and ameliorating effect," so powerful, indeed, he said, that it was "of sufficient strength to markedly reduce the sequelae of adverse childhood."
But how, the researchers then wondered, did these women happen to find supportive husbands?
Through a series of analytic procedures, the investigators determined that the women with good husbands were women who tended to plan out their futures rather than "drift from adversity to adversity" as many of their home-mates did.
And moreover, this capacity to plan stemmed from successes at school--if not exam success, then in such areas as sports, drama, arts and crafts.
For the women who had no family-support system, it was the success in a school activity that, speculates Rutter, may have "given the girls a sense of their own worth and a feeling of being able to control their own destinies as a result of their pleasure, success and accomplishment in a few specific areas of their lives."
"It is," he said, "a common observation that many people with multiple psychosocial problems feel at the mercy of fate.
"The findings suggest that experiencing some form of success or even pleasurable activites may be important, not because it dilutes the impact of unpleasant or distressful happenings, but because it serves to enhance confidence and competence to deal with the hassles, with the dilemmas of life.
"It has," he says, "important implications for mental health services for children whose parenting has broken down as well as implications for . . . modes of intervention with respect to difficulties in parenting."
The implications may suggest, for example, that there may indeed be ways to interrupt the cycle that seems to result in an abused child growing up into an abusing parent.
The crucial question, of course--and the challenge: How can the protective factors that helped the survivors escape from their deprived situations be applied to others who cannot, alone, break free of the forces that imprison them, their children and their children's children in lives of misery and despair?