In 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti was the Chief of Preventative Medicine at Keiser 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).
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?”
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.