The first thing we need to do to ensure human wellbeing is minimize biologically and psychologically toxic elements in people’s environments. In each of the roles in your life—parent, spouse, worker, policy maker, friend, neighbor—if you minimize your own and other people’s exposure to toxic events, you will be laying the groundwork for a more peaceful, productive society with much less crime, drug abuse, depression, and conflict.
Start with the prenatal period. The developing fetus is harmed by maternal smoking, alcohol use, and drug use. Patty Brennan at Emory University has shown that maternal smoking can contribute to adolescent delinquency. David Barker has shown that poor maternal nutrition during pregnancy contributes to coronary heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension of offspring when they become adults. Good prenatal interventions like the Nurse Family Partnership can prevent these kinds of problems.
In infancy, we must ensure that mothers and infants ”bond.” Bonding means that the mother and infant develop warm interactions in which mothers are sensitive to the moment-to-moment needs of the baby and babies begin to learn to orient toward mothers and look to mothers for comfort. Bonding gets the baby off to a good start in development. (Fathers can also develop these kinds of interactions, but the process has not been studied as much.) Bonding is disrupted by anything that stresses the mother. Depression is a common disruptor. Marital discord, single parenting, and unsupportive family members are others. All of these stressors are made more likely by poverty. Interventions like the Nurse Family Partnership can ensure good bonding by addressing all of these stressors.
In childhood and adolescence, the major toxin is family conflict. Jerry Patterson and his colleagues at Oregon Social Learning Center directly observed family interactions. In families with high levels of conflict, children learned to cope by being aggressive. When children take their aggression to school, it leads to poor academic performance and problems with peers. Jerry showed that most career criminals were aggressive children. Poverty contributes to family conflict , childhood aggression, and delinquency. Thanks largely to Patterson’s work, a variety of family interventions have been developed that can prevent family conflict and children’s development of problem behaviors. Examples include, the Incredible Years, Parent Management Training Oregon, EcoFIT, Strengthening Families, Multi-Dimensional Foster Family Care, and Multi-Systemic Therapy.
Major stressors in adulthood include poverty and economic reverses, such as losing a job. Interpersonal conflict in family relationships, on the job, or with neighbors are also key stressors. These events increase anxiety and depression and affect people’s physical wellbeing. For example, William Gallo at Yale University found that job loss among those over 50 doubles the risk of a heart attack.
Stress has real consequences. We tend to think of it has something intangible. But if a young man broke into your house in last few years, you can be pretty sure that there were significant stressors in his life and his family’s life. It is in your interest to reduce the stress of everyone in your community, because someone else’s stress may lead to real harm to you.
Most of the things that behavioral scientists have learned about dealing with these problems involve working with individuals and families. They have found much that makes a difference. But we should not lose sight of the larger context. Poverty and job loss are major stressors. Economic policies that reduce poverty will prevent much family conflict, depression, physical illness, and crime. If we want to minimize toxic environments, pursuing economic wellbeing of all is an important step.
Tags: Toxic Environments