Ways to counter the effects of adverse childhood experiences

New study finds positive childhood experiences are crucial for adult health.

by Veronika Tait, Ph.D.

(Originally published October 4, 2019, by Psychology Today)

Groundbreaking research conducted in the 1990s found that the greater number of negative childhood experiences a person had, the more likely they were to experience poor health outcomes later in life such as heart disease, liver disease, and cancer. A new study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect has found that positive experiences, such as having a teacher who cares about them, can buffer against these negative outcomes.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, or a parent suffering from mental illness, have been a popular research topic in recent years, and these early life experiences have been found to have large impacts well into adulthood. As trauma experts Christine R. Ludy-­Dobson and Bruce Perry have written:

The impact of early trauma is so profound because it occurs during those critical periods when the brain is most rapidly developing and organizing. Because the experiences of early life determine the organization and function of the mature brain, going through adverse events in childhood can have a tremendously negative impact on early brain development, including social and emotional development.

Researchers from Brigham Young University aimed to extend what we know about early adverse experiences by investigating ways to mitigate the devastating health outcomes of ACEs.

They asked 246 participants to complete a survey indicating their number of ACEs, as well as counter-ACEs. Counter-ACEs were positive childhood experiences such as having good friends and neighbors, having a caregiver with whom you feel safe, and having a predictable home routine. They were also asked to report on their current mental and physical health through measures such as BMI, exercise, gratitude, perceived stress, and depression.

Veronika Tait
While having an ACE score of 4 or more can lead to adult health problems, counter-ACEs can mitigate these negative effects (image: Veronika Tait).

The results showed that having counter-ACEs was indeed a protective shield against the negative health effects of ACEs. They also found that irrespective of the number of ACEs, having little to no counter-ACEs led to poor adult health. As lead researcher AliceAnn Crandall said, “As bad as ACEs may be, the absence of these positive childhood experiences and relationships may actually be more detrimental to lifelong health so we need more focus on increasing the positive.”

Similar results were shown in a 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics in which researchers classified counter-ACEs as positive childhood experiences (PCEs). These participants were asked things like whether they felt their family stood by them in difficult times, if they felt safe and protected by an adult in their home, or if at least two nonparent adults took a genuine interest in them. Researchers also found that these PCEs were associated with lower rates of mental health problems. The odds of having depression or poor mental health overall as an adult were 72% lower for those with higher levels of PCEs.

As Perry said on the effects of trauma, “Really, it boils down to something pretty simple. If you also have opportunities to be connected to people in positive ways, that can buffer some of those effects.”

Social connections don’t just mitigate the effects of early adversity, they also may affect your longevity as much as obesity. In fact, smoking and developing alcoholism heightens mortality risk to a comparable extent as loneliness.

Connection researcher Julianne Holt-Lundstad recommends sweeping changes to incorporate social relationships into the discussion of physical health. She states, “Just like we have consensus guidelines on nutrition, physical activity and sleep, we have recommendations of what we eat, how much, what kinds of exercise we get. My recommendation would be to have similar guidelines for social connections.”

It is unlikely that we will ever fully eradicate trauma. Attempts to help cushion these outcomes, such as strengthening healthy childhood relationships, need to be a public priority.