I recently came across new study published by Dr. Christina Bethell of Johns Hopkins University regarding Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). You may have heard of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Important trauma research beginning in the 1990’s identified 10 significant ACEs. It is important to recognize that trauma can have many sources, and there are a number of potentially traumatic experiences that are not included in the 10 ACEs. We each define for ourselves what we experience as “traumatic”. If your experience does not fall into an ACE category, it does not mean it is not significant and important to include when assessing your own trauma with a qualified therapist. (Click here to learn more about trauma and ACEs, and why it is important that mental health professionals work from a trauma-informed lens.)
With these considerations in mind, professionals see the ACE score as a good rule of thumb for quickly assessing the likelihood of trauma affecting a person’s functioning in adult life. An ACE score is determined by assessing how many of the 10 identified ACEs a person experienced before age 18. Research has demonstrated that the higher a person’s ACE score, the poorer their adult outcomes tend to be on many domains of functioning. Research has also demonstrated that taking a pro-active approach, including practicing regular self-care, accessing good medical care, and getting proper mental health care can go a long way to reducing these odds, if you are one of the many adults in our society working to overcome childhood adversity.
Which brings me to why I love this new research! For every sad, uncomfortable, and disturbing statistic we have about childhood trauma, we also have a huge number of amazing people on this planet working to do good and counteract the effects of all that is unfortunately wrong. What I found most significant about Dr. Bethell’s study is that she recognized that if certain specific childhood experiences can lead to difficulties in adulthood, so too could other specific childhood experiences lead to better health and well-being. This study identified 7 Positive Childhood Experiences and asked adults to answer “yes” or “no” regarding each statement as it applied to their lives prior to age 18. These are the PCEs identified in the study:
1. Able to talk with the family about my feelings
2. Felt that my family stood by me during difficult times
3. Enjoyed participating in community traditions
4. Felt a sense of belonging in high school
5. Felt supported by friends
6. Had at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in me
7. Felt safe and protected by an adult in my home
The study also looked at participant’s mental health history in adulthood and asked them to rate their own mental health over the previous month. The study found a positive correlation between an increased number of “yes” responses and better mental health outcomes. There were many limitations to this study, including the sample size and a lack of diversity among participants; however the implications of the study are promising.
Those of us that spend time with children – including parents, teachers, counselors, mentors, and other caring adults – can look to this study and the PCEs as a guide for things to be mindful of when creating nurturing environments for kids. We can all try to find more ways to be those “non-parent adults” for the youth we come in contact with. And if we can increase the overall number of positive childhood experiences in our communities, then we can help to foster a future of healthier, happier adults.
You can read a great article on Psychology Today that explains the study in more depth here
Or read the study itself here