Experiencing childhood trauma may lead to being kinder to others later in life 
The Sector > Research > Experiencing childhood trauma may lead to being kinder to others later in life 

Experiencing childhood trauma may lead to being kinder to others later in life 

by Freya Lucas

January 26, 2023

Experiencing childhood trauma may lead an individual to volunteer, donate money or contact their elected officials about environmental issues later in life, new research has found.


The CU Boulder and Loyola University study is one of the first in the U.S. to associate childhood trauma and public, civic environmental engagement in adulthood.


It also found that in addition to people who experienced childhood trauma, those who traveled and had experiences in nature as children were also more likely to engage in private “green behaviour” as adults, such as recycling, driving or flying less, and taking shorter showers.


The researchers conducted a survey in 2020 using a nationally representative sample of about 450 U.S. adults to examine two types of environmental engagement. 


Public, civic engagement was measured in hours per month devoted to an environmental protection cause, such as writing letters to elected officials or donating time and resources to an organization. Private, green behaviour was defined as self-reported actions adopted by individuals or households to reduce their environmental impact.


Previous research has shown that people who experience natural disasters as children are more likely to get involved in environmental causes, but these new findings show that childhood trauma of any kind is associated with increased interest in both private and public environment engagement as an adult. 


This indicates there may be something about a formative, negative experience that drives individuals to engage on a public or policy level with environmental issues, instead of only practicing green behaviour.


“It suggests that there could be another way of looking at trauma,” researchers explained. 


While the researchers can’t say exactly why experiencing traumatic events earlier in life boosts the likelihood of getting publicly involved in environmental issues, they note that previous research has associated trauma with a strong sense of empathy, and empathy with green behaviour.


It could also partly be a coping mechanism, to attempt to keep bad things from happening to other people or living things. The data revealed that childhood experiences in nature, travel and trauma were all predictors of private, green behaviour later in life. However, only childhood trauma was also significantly associated with public, civic engagement. Trauma also had the largest impact on predicting green behaviour, compared to other formative life experiences.


“This is another data point that supports the value of creating opportunities for people to connect with nature, and the importance of those experiences for cultivating a society that protects the natural resources that we all depend on,” the researchers explained. 


To access the research in full please see here

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