Catching a cold can seem pretty random: If you’re in the vicinity of someone with a cold, you might get it … or you might not, and the reasoning isn’t always clear. Now, scientists say how well your parents got along when you were a child may be a factor in your susceptibility.
Scientists have already established that adults whose parents separated when they were children are at an increased risk for poorer health than people whose parents stayed together. But a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences wanted to find out why. So, psychologists from Carnegie Mellon University took 201 healthy adults, quarantined them, exposed them to a virus that causes a common cold, and monitored them for five days to see if they got sick. They also asked them questions about their upbringing.
Researchers discovered that adults whose parents lived apart and didn’t speak to each other were more than three times more likely to develop a cold during the experiment than those whose parents were together during their childhood. (The increased risk was also partially due to increased inflammation in their bodies in response to the infection.) People whose parents had separated yet still communicated during their childhood had no increased risk of getting sick.
The results suggest that the way in which parents approach separation and divorce can have a serious impact on the overall health of a child, even into adulthood.
The findings sound shocking, but clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Beauty that he’s not surprised. “It is well documented in the scientific literature that emotional states have profound effects on physical health and the ability to prevent illness,” he said. Licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago, agrees. “We are starting to see more evidence of a mind-body connection,” he told Yahoo Beauty. “Our psychology can effect our physiology, and what happened to us in childhood can have a big impact on our adult psychology.”
Mayer explained just how observant children are, indicating that they notice when their parents aren’t speaking and there can be a fallout — including physical symptoms. Children also generally try to figure out why their parents aren’t speaking. “Their imaginations are always more negative than the reality,” Mayer said. “We imagine the worst as a defense mechanism. More negativity equals more tension, equals more anxiety, and results in more illness.” Klow also picked up on this thread saying that a child’s world view is generally similar to the one they will have in adulthood. Meaning, a stressed child might grow to be a stressed adult, which can certainly take a physical toll.
All of this is yet another example of why experts say it’s so crucial for estranged couples to be civil in front of their children. “Children benefit from a felt sense of physical and psychological safety,” Klow said. “When parents are civil in front of the children, it allows the child to feel that they are in a world in which the adults can skillfully take care of them.” But, when a child worries that their parents can’t care for them, it can create a sense that their world isn’t safe. “Parents do so much good when they can put their adult disagreements aside and focus on creating a psychologically safe world for their child,” Klow said.
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