By now, most counselors, pediatricians, teachers, and other people who work with children know about ACES: The “Adverse Childhood Experiences” scale. ACE’s predict, based on measuring the number of traumatic or adverse events experienced, which kids are likely to struggle developmentally and emotionally as they mature. (You can take the ACES quiz here).
What has been less well understood is why a small percentage of kids with high ACE scores have normal development and good adult emotional health. What factors created a level of resiliency in these kids that made them able to thrive through difficult childhoods?
In 2019 researchers at Johns Hopkins University published results of the first large scales study that sought to identify “Protective Childhood Experiences” that acted counter to traumatic experiences. The Seven Protective Childhood Experiences (PCE’s) they identified (illustrated below) are categories of childhood/adolescent experiences that are connected to improved mental health and social connectedness in adults.
Even before researchers defined ACE’s and demonstrated the link between high ACE scores and lower high school graduation rates, increased mental health diagnoses, higher rates of incarceration, and other poor outcomes, there has been enormous focus on decreasing adverse childhood experiences. This study helps shape research moving in an additional direction: how to support kids who (1) have experienced one or more traumatic events or (2) kids who have not yet experienced a traumatic event but statistically will in their lifetime. Could PCE’s help researchers identify ways to help grow resiliency in kids who are then able to become healthier adults?
Kids who experience many PCE’s learn to trust social connections to support them. Social connectedness is linked to adult mental health. Adult survey respondents who reported high levels of adulthood social and emotional support (i.e. family, partners, and friend circles they trusted, were open with, and looked to for support) were more likely to have experienced a high number of PCE’s during their childhood.
Kids who experience many PCE’s during childhood become adults who can seek support and get care- and adults who can seek support and get care have improved symptoms even if mental illness is present.
The relationship between PCE’s in childhood and good mental health in adults is dose-responsive- that means the more PCE’s a child gets the better their adult mental health is likely to be.
7 Positive Childhood Experiences
1. Ability to talk with family about feelings.
2. Felt experience that family is supportive in difficult times.
3. Enjoyment in participation in community traditions.
4. Feeling of belonging in high school.
5. Feeling of being supported by friends.
6. Having at least two non-parent adults who genuinely care.
7. Feeling safe and protected by an adult at home.
Original summary of this illustration: Until now, research on the impact that childhood experiences have on adult mental health has focused on adverse experiences. This week, Johns Hopkins researchers published significant new research demonstrating 7 positive experiences, that when experienced regularly in childhood, correlate to adults who are less likely to experience depression and poor mental health.
study authored by: Christina Bethell et. al. “Positive Childhood Experiences…“