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A Lifetime of Health and Wellness Starts Early

 

As we sit amidst a pandemic, I marvel at the difference in how each person is navigating this shared traumatic space. What makes some of us carry on with little impact on our mental health and wellness, while others struggle to get through life’s daily tasks?

I believe it is Resilience. Resilience isn’t something you are born with. It is complex and developed over time, through personal experiences and environments, through parenting and opportunities, through responses from those who are close to us. It is informed by our temperament, personality, genetics, and epigenetics. It is so complicated and intertwined it is difficult to pinpoint how to develop or acquire resilience. But resilience is how we counteract Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and other traumatic events. Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs), sometimes called Benevolent Childhood Experiences (BCEs) or Counter-ACEs, are the experiences that help us develop resilience and counteract the harmful effects of ACEs.

In a study done by Johns Hopkins University (Bethell et al., 2019) a seven-item Positive Childhood Experience (PCE) survey was developed to understand the effects of positive experiences on health and wellness. The positive experiences in the survey were: (1) Was 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. Another study by Crandall et al. (2019) from Brigham Young University, used a 10 item scale called Benevolent Childhood Experiences (BCEs): (1) At least one caregiver with whom you felt safe; (2) At least one good friend; (3) Beliefs that gave you comfort; (4) Enjoyment at school; (5) At least one teacher that cared; (6) Good neighbors; (7) An adult (not a parent/caregiver) who could provide you with support or advice; (8) Opportunities to have a good time; (9) Ability to like yourself or feel comfortable with yourself; (10) Predictable home routine. The indicators from these studies demonstrate the important role protective factors play in a child’s life and how they help to increase a child’s resiliency.

Both studies show when a person has high PCEs/BCEs they counter-act ACEs, mitigating harmful lifelong effects.  In a perfect world, we would prevent ACEs. While we continue to aspire to this, a parallel strategy is to increase positive childhood experiences to ensure that when a person encounters a traumatic experience, they are equipped with the strategies and skills needed to bounce back. Furthermore, the studies suggest that the absence of positive childhood experiences may, in fact, be more harmful than the presence of adverse childhood experiences.

Here are a few ways we can promote positive childhood experiences, build resilience, and improve children’s mental health and wellness trajectory:

  1. Educate, educate, educate. If parents understand how to set their child on a positive lifelong trajectory, they will.
  2. Educate early care and education providers, school personnel, teachers, youth coaches, faith-based leaders, etc. on the tremendous impact they have on the children in their care. They can be that ‘one’ adult who is a child’s greatest champion.
  3. Teach social skills – just like we teach academic skills. Provide opportunities to support children’s development of friendship skills, problem-solving skills, taking turns, communicating their needs and wants, etc. These will prove to be their most important skills as they grow older.
  4. Teach emotional literacy. Children experience all emotions and feelings – label them, talk about them, model for them, hold space for them. Be there to help them self-regulate when their emotions are big.
  5. Provide routine and structure in children’s day. Children do better when they know what is coming and it helps them self-regulate.
  6. Encourage fun and enjoyment of each other – at home, at school, in the workplace. Comradery, laughter, and having fun does a body (and the mind) good!
  7. Integrate play as often as possible! Children develop foundational social and emotional skills through play.
  8. Find ways to help strengthen the parent-child dyad and family partnerships.

References:

Bergland, Christopher. “A 17-Item Checklist Geared to Neutralize Early Life Distress.” 17 September 2019, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.co...-early-life-distress. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

Bethell, Christina, et. al. “Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels.” JAMA Pediatrics (First published online: September 9, 2019) DOI: https://jamanetwork.com/journa.../fullarticle/2749336.  

Crandall, AliceAnn, et al. “ACEs and Counter-ACEs: How Positive and Negative Childhood Experiences Influence Adult Health.” Child Abuse & Neglect (First Published online: July 27, 2019) DOI: 0.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104089.

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Education about promoting positive experiences and using simple brain science to help emphasize the importance of positive experiences in building healthy brains (hence bodies) are the keys to both preventing negative impact and building capacities after experiencing adversity.

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