The harmful effects of adverse childhood experiences have long been known. My mentor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Jack Shonkoff, was one of the pioneers of the notion that toxic stress suffered early in life has repercussions far into adulthood. In the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, stressors such as abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and parental mental illness were linked to an increased risk of developing not only substance abuse, depression, and suicide, but also physical ailments such as heart disease and cancer.
Now, a new study out of Johns Hopkins University and published in September in JAMA Pediatrics shows that positive relationships in childhood can mitigate some of the damaging effects of more negative childhood experiences.
In a large telephone survey, Wisconsin adults were asked to report if and how much, as children, they were able to talk to family members about feelings, had someone in their corner when times were tough, participated in community traditions, felt connected at school and supported by friends, felt safe and protected by adults in their homes, and had adults in their lives who took a genuine interest in them.
The researchers found that the people who reported the highest number of positive childhood relationships or experiences had the lowest rates of depression or poor mental health. This association held true even for adults who also reported some of the adverse childhood experiences talked about in the ACE study.
What struck me about this study was the breadth and diversity of relationships found to positively impact adult well-being. Family relationships were, of course, significant. But so, too, were peer friendships, community and school associations, and any adult connection that was perceived to be genuinely concerned and involved.
This confirmed for me something I have long advocated for with my patients. I often tell parents, “The more caring adults you can have in your child’s life, the better.” I usually have in mind teachers, guidance counselors, and parents of friends. But close friends who can be counted on for support by a child are also included in the mix. I ask my teenage patients if they have caring adults they feel they can confide in. If they struggle for names, I’ll hand them my card with my phone number and email on it and say, “Consider me one.”
As a foster parent, too, I found great hope in this work. I can’t erase the trauma and abuse my foster children went through before they came to me. But by having our family dinners, by asking about their days, by advocating for them at school, in court, and at family DCF meetings, I know that I am not just being a nurturing parent. I’m also helping to build resilience and gird them for the future, whatever that may bring.