In 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti was the Chief of Preventative Medicine at Kaiser Permanente. He was doing a study on long-term health outcomes when he noticed that people who had traumatic pasts tended to have more dire health outcomes such as heart disease and diabetes. So strong was the trend, he turned the focus of his research to understanding more about how adversity in childhood related to health outcomes in adults.
After more than ten years of anecdotal evidence, Dr. Felitti joined forces with Dr. Robert Anda of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Adverse Experiences: The Research
In 1997, the two doctors embarked on a landmark study of over 17,000 individuals and asked them about childhood dysfunction and trauma and current physical, mental, and behavioral health.
That study later became known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study.
What they found was that when children are exposed to toxic stress, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline dramatically impact the development of their brains and bodies. Long-term exposure to childhood trauma has been linked to everything from heart disease and diabetes to alcoholism, depression, and suicide.
In fact, the two doctors showed that
- when children are exposed to two 2 ACES, they were 4 times as likely to become alcoholics;
- those exposed to 3 or more ACES were 3.6 times as likely to use illicit drugs;
- those exposed to 4 or more ACES were 12 times as likely to attempt suicide;
- and those with 6 or more of the 10 ACEs they studied, their life expectancy dropped by 20 years.
Over the last 20 years, more research has been done showing how stress and adversity has long-term effects on children. This research begged the question: “Are there positive childhood experiences that can counteract the impact of early trauma?”
What Positive Experiences Do
In 2019, JAMA Pediatrics published a study showing that Positive Childhood Experiences have a similar correlation with long-term health outcomes.
There are seven experiences included in the positive childhood experience (PCE) psychometric analysis performed by JAMA Pediatrics. The prompt was “Before the age of 18, I was . . .” and respondents were asked to respond “yes” or “no” to each:
- Able to talk with my family about my feelings.
- Felt that my family stood by me during difficult times.
- Enjoyed participating in community traditions.
- Felt a sense of belonging in high school.
- Felt supported by friends.
- Had at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in me.
- Felt safe and protected by an adult in my home.
The great news is that parents and caregivers can control most of the PCEs, which are shown to improve resiliency and reduce the likelihood of depression in adulthood.
By intentionally introducing each PCE to your child’s life, you give them the necessary tools they will need for long-term success, happiness, and resilience.
This recent discovery comes from a John Hopkin’s study published in 2019. Researchers were looking to determine if any “protective childhood experiences” could be linked with positive outcomes as adults—increasing resiliency and offsetting some of the trauma or damage caused by adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, a serious accident, witnessing something traumatic, bullying, neglect, dysfunction in the home, etc.
7 Positive Childhood Experiences
ACEs can influence a person’s mental health, chance of graduating high school, likelihood of being incarcerated, and overall success as an adult. It’s not always possible for parents to prevent their children from experiencing an ACE; however, it is possible for parents to do all they can to help their children experience the 7 PCEs that can counteract the effects of ACEs.
The 7 PCEs determined to promote good mental health, resiliency, and success as adults include:
Being Able to Share Their Feelings with Family
It’s important to let your kids know that it’s okay for them to express their feelings and that you’re there for them to talk to whenever they have something emotional going on. Emotional sharing can also help promote emotional intelligence. It may be difficult for kids to open up at first because they may not even know what they are feeling or why, so to help kids open up about their emotions, it’s important for them to first identify them. For younger kids, this can be done using a feelings list, an emotions wheel, a flipbook, or an emotions app, depending on the age of your child.
Feeling Supported by Family During Difficult Times
When life becomes difficult, it’s important for your kids to know that you’re there for them. This could be as simple as having a family meeting or ensuring your kids have everything they need—giving your kids a chance to reach out for extra support as needed. Letting your children know that you’re on their side and want the best for them when life gets rough, especially during this time of quarantine, can go a long way. Try not to show any fears to your kids but assure them that as the adult you will be there to support them with whatever they need right now, despite how scary times may feel.
Enjoying Participation in Community Traditions
What are some fun community traditions that your family can participate in? Seek out some local community resources and make some plans to participate in the county fair, or the holiday parade, etc. once it is safe to leave home. These traditions give kids a fun, exciting time to look forward to with friends and family, and they are something they will likely look back on for years to come and continue with as adults with families of their own.
Feeling a Sense of Belonging in High School
This is something that may come easier for some kids than others and can be especially difficult for those who’ve experienced an ACE or are entering into a new school or home. Encourage kids to become involved in extracurricular activities. There are a variety of clubs, teams, committees, and groups associated with specific hobbies and interests at most schools. After-school dance lessons, clubs, groups, and sports not offered in school can also provide opportunities for kids to connect with peers who share common interests. Do some digging in your area for some options and encourage children and teens to be social and form new connections.
Feeling Supported by Friends
Just as family support is important, so is the support of friends. Encourage kids to make good decisions when choosing their friends, and help set a positive example by forming healthy, supportive friendships and relationships for kids to model. If a child or teen is struggling socially, seek out a peer support group, buddy bench program, or equivalent to help provide that support.
Having at Least Two Non-Parent Adults Who Genuinely Care
Let’s face it, there are times when kids find it easier to talk to an adult who isn’t a parent. Having at least two non-parent adults who care and are positive influences is important for kids. These could be teachers, mentors, coaches, counselors, other parents, friends, godparents, youth leaders, pastors, church members, etc.
Feeling Safe and Protected by an Adult at Home
Feeling safe and protected by an adult at home goes a long way for kids. This can be difficult for those who must work long hours, so if you are concerned your child may not feel safe and protected by an adult at home, the support of an adult caretaker, trusted friend, or community member are all possible options. Those who are struggling with substance use, an abusive relationship, or abusive patterns can greatly benefit from the help of a counselor or therapist for the family.
Growing into a well-rounded, successful adult is something that every kid deserves a chance of achieving. If you’d like to learn more about getting extra support for your family or the services Idaho Youth Ranch provides, we’d love to speak with you. Contact us to learn more.