Youth Services Law

Countering Adverse Childhood Experiences

Group of smiling children

In my last post, I discussed the 20+ years of research on the possible effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on children. Fortunately, we are seeing more research into how we can help counter the ACEs that the children in our care have suffered. None of these studies is definitive — even the original ACEs studies show only correlation rather than causation. Nevertheless, they show some promising techniques that are worth trying while we wait for the scientific evidence to accumulate.

One bedrock principle for helping children is to recognize that adversity is not destiny. Children who have suffered from ACEs are not preordained to suffer problems. ACEs is a description, not a prediction, and we need to keep that in mind whenever we work with traumatized children.

Another principle is that we can counter the adversity that they have experiences. Recent studies have looked at positive childhood experiences, and have discovered that positive experiences are associated with better functioning as an adult. A recent study in Wisconsin found that positive experiences can counter the effects of adverse experiences. The positive experiences that the study measured included:

  • Being able to talk to family about feelings,
  • Having a family stand by them during difficult times,
  • Participating in community traditions,
  • Feeling a sense of belonging in high school,
  • Being supported by friends,
  • Having non-parents adults take an interest in them, and
  • Feeling safe and protected by an adult at home.

Study participants who had high scores on the positive scale, even if they had high ACEs scores, showed less psychological toll from the adverse experiences.

An earlier study looked at ten (10) specific “benevolent childhood experiences,” specifically whether the participant had:

  • At least one caregiver with whom they felt safe,
  • At least one good friend,
  • Beliefs that gave them comfort,
  • Enjoyment at school,
  • At least one teacher who cared,
  • Good neighbors,
  • An adult (not a parent or caregiver) who could provide support or advice,
  • Opportunities to have a good time,
  • Ability to like or feel comfortable with oneself, and
  • Predictable home routine, such as regular meals and a regular bedtime.

That study and later ones found that the benevolent experiences seemed to counter childhood trauma. Even those children with high adverse scores had fewer bad effects if they also had several benevolent experiences.

There are important takeaways for those of us who work with children. We cannot make them feel safe at home, for example, but we can give them an adult with whom they feel comfortable sharing their feelings. We also can provide some community traditions and help them find enjoyment at school, friends, and opportunities to have a good time. Even when we cannot prevent adverse experiences, we do have some ability to help counteract their effects.

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