Positive Childhood Experiences May Buffer Against Health Effects Of Adverse Ones | WOSU Radio

Positive Childhood Experiences May Buffer Against Health Effects Of Adverse Ones

Sep 9, 2019
Originally published on September 10, 2019 10:07 am

Plenty of research shows that adverse childhood experiences can lead to depression and other health problems later in life. But researcher Christina Bethell wondered whether positive experiences in childhood could counter that. Her research comes from a personal place.

In the 1970s, in a low-income housing complex in Los Angeles, Bethell had a tough childhood. Sometimes she didn't have money for lunch. Sometimes, when a free bus came through to take kids to church, she would get on it, just to go somewhere else. "In low-income areas and in California in general, there was a lot of drugs and drinking — it was the norm," she says.

But there were positive things in her childhood too. Her grandmother would come by every few months and tell her that anything she needed was inside her. She was engaged in school; she played sports, and she stayed late to help the teacher clean up.

And there was a woman in her housing complex with an open door to all the kids who lived there. They called her "Mrs. Raccoon," and she held a birthday party with tea and candy every Saturday for whoever had a birthday that week. "We would just sit there together and celebrate," Bethell recalls. "She was the sweetest woman — just present, didn't talk a lot, but she was there. I started just traipsing over as a child — she had these little red berry hard candies, and to this day, that's my favorite candy."

Today, Bethell is a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her study, out Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, found that this kind of positive relationship in childhood may have lasting effects on people's mental health into adulthood.

What question were you trying to answer with this research?

Numerous studies have shown that the more negative childhood experiences adults report when they reflect back on their life, the more likely they are to have an array of physical, mental and social problems as an adult. We often call these adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. They include things like physical and emotional abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, having lived in a home with an adult with an alcohol or drug problem or where there was violence.

We were especially curious to learn whether adults with multiple negative childhood experiences were less likely to have the problems associated with having [them] if they also reported having had more positive experiences.

How did you go about measuring positive experiences and their impact?

We analyzed data from the Wisconsin Behavioral Risk Factor Survey [of 6,188 people] — a representative sample of all adults age 18 and older in the entire state.

The survey asked whether the respondents recall that they were able to talk with their family about their feelings, felt that their families stood by them during difficult times, had at least two nonparent adults who took genuine interest in them, whether they felt safe and protected by an adult in their home, felt supported by friends and felt a sense of belonging in high school, and participated in their community. These are relational childhood experiences — not other things like achievement in school and other things that are also positive.

Isn't it tricky to rely on people's memories to figure out whether they had these positive experiences or not?

Well, these are experiences as lived and recalled by the person, which is what the brain and the body and emotions are responding to and reinforcing. So even if someone else might look in and say, 'You didn't have adversity' or 'You had lots of nurturing as a child,' it's really what we took in and built our beliefs and identity around, and that has a big impact on us.

Our study questions were based on well-established science that explains how our relational experiences in childhood — both positive and negative — really get under our skin.

And what kind of effect did these positive experiences have on people's mental health later on?

First of all, we did find that positive reports on any one of the seven types of positive experiences we assessed were indeed associated with lower rates of mental health problems and higher rates of having relationships as an adult where you get the social and emotional support you need. Yet, as we hypothesized, the biggest effect was when we counted up how many of these experiences were reported — just like it's done on all those other studies on adverse childhood experiences. We see that accumulation of positive experiences, just like the accumulation of adverse experiences, really packs a punch.

Getting into the numbers, we found that having higher counts of those positive experiences was associated with 72% lower odds of having depression or poor mental health overall as an adult. We also found that those with higher levels of positive experiences were over 3 1/2 times more likely to have all the social and emotional support they needed as an adult.

What are the lessons people can take from these findings?

Every moment matters. Every interaction with a child has a reaction in that child. Even as we keep working to address the many social and cultural factors we need to address to prevent negative experiences, we should be focused on proactive promotion of the positive. In particular, there's a need to promote that "through any door" kind way of being — like happened in my childhood [with Mrs. Raccoon]. So that wherever a child goes — to school, early care, walking around their community, to a doctor — they're met with warm adults who purposely try to see and respond to them and meet their needs for care and guidance.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to spend a moment now on a new study about how positive relationships people have as children may have long-lasting impacts. The research is done by Christina Bethell of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. And for her, this work is personal. She faced a lot of adversity growing up in a low-income housing complex in LA in the 1970s. But there were positive things, too.

CHRISTINA BETHELL: There was this woman. Her name was Mrs. Raccoon. And every Saturday, she had a birthday party. And she would have tea and little hard candies. And we would just sit there together and celebrate. And I'm not sure if every week there was even a child with a birthday, but it didn't matter. We just sat there, and she was just present - didn't talk a lot, but she was there. And she was always there.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Bethell says there's lots of research that shows that adversity, things like abuse and neglect, can have negative impacts later in life. Her new study, out today in JAMA Pediatrics, looks at the impact that positive experiences in childhood can have on adults, particularly on their mental health.

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BETHELL: What is reported on here are experiences as lived and recalled by the person. So even if someone else might look in and say, you didn't have adversity or you had lots of nurturing as a child, it's really what we took in and built our beliefs and identity around that has actually been knocking around in our nervous system and our brains and our emotions all this time.

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BETHELL: For our study, we analyzed data from the Wisconsin Behavioral Risk Factor Survey. And the specific positive childhood experiences that were assessed in the survey asked whether the respondents recalled that they were able to talk with their family about their feelings, felt that their family stood by them during difficult times, had at least two nonparent adults who took genuine interest in them, whether they felt safe and protected by an adult in their home, felt supported by friends and felt a sense of belonging in high school and in their community.

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BETHELL: First of all, we did find that positive experiences were indeed associated with lower rates of mental health problems and higher rates of having relationships as an adult where you get the social and emotional support you need 'cause we need this throughout all life.

Yet, it's the accumulation of positive experiences that really pack the punch. Getting to the numbers, we found that having higher counts of those positive experiences was associated with 72% lower odds of having depression or poor mental health.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BETHELL: Overall, we believe that our study really does shine a light of hope that every moment matters. Every interaction with a child has a reaction in that child. Even as we keep up working to address the many social and cultural factors we need to address to prevent negative experiences, we should be focused on proactive promotion of the positive.

Intervene early when adverse experiences do take place, and buffer negative effects by restoring, in any way we can, a child's sense of safety, belonging, the capacity to become and grow, in particular to promote this in a through-any-door kind of way, like happened in my childhood, so that wherever a child goes - you know, to school, early care, walking around their community, to a doctor - they're met with warmth and adults that really purposely try to see and respond to them and meet their healthy needs for care and guidance.

CHANG: That's professor Christina Bethell of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her study is out today in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.