Positive childhood experiences can improve mental health

Several national and state organizations have led efforts to raise awareness of the the negative effects of negative childhood experiences on mental and physical health from childhood to adulthood. These negative childhood experiences are deeply negative experiences that children can have, including abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence or having a caregiver with a serious mental illness or who is in prison, for example.

Adverse childhood experiences are associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, suicide, substance use problems, and physical health problems like heart disease and cancer in adulthood. In fact, adverse childhood experiences have been called one of the greatest public health crises of our time. This statement is of particular concern in view of the fact that approximately two-thirds of American adults report having at least one adverse childhood experience and over a third have two or more, underscoring the pervasive nature of the problem.

Positive childhood experiences

Fortunately, we know that we are affected by more than just the bad experiences we have. For example, having a supportive friend or partner, living in a safe neighborhood, and having access to nutritious food are things that the general public sees as positive. And there is research linking each of these positive experiences to better health!

Recent research has sought to identify the types of positive childhood experiences that may play a role in long-term health. A measure of those positive childhood experiences, for example, called caring childhood experiences, identifies the following 10 experiences as being good for adult mental health:

  1. Having at least one safe caregiver (not all caregivers may be safe, but having at least one is associated with better outcomes)
  2. Have a good friend
  3. Have comforting beliefs
  4. Enjoy school
  5. Have a caring teacher
  6. Have good neighbors
  7. Have an adult who is not a parent or guardian who can provide support
  8. Have opportunities to have fun
  9. Have a positive self-concept
  10. Have a predictable home routine

Recent research has shown that adults with more of these positive or caring childhood experiences have fewer mental health problems (Bethell et al., 2019; Narayan et al., 2018), better nutrition and fewer problems with sleep (Crandall et al., 2019), and safer sex and substance use (Crandall et al., 2020). As a result, it is increasingly evident that these positive childhood experiences are more protective of the mental and physical health of adults.

Positive Childhood Experiences and COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, my collaborators and I wanted to understand if these positive childhood experiences could protect mental health during the pandemic. We were particularly curious whether these positive experiences would predict better mental health even after taking into account negative childhood experiences and adult factors such as whether themselves or family members or friends had been infected with COVID-19 or had financial difficulties, and how supportive their current social situation was. In a paper soon to be published in the journal Adversity and Resilience Science, we found that adults with more positive childhood experiences had fewer symptoms of depression, less stress, and were less lonely at the start of the pandemic compared to adults with fewer positive childhood experiences. These associations remained even after taking into account the number of people affected by the pandemic and the quality of their social support.

As a result, it’s not only that people who report more positive childhood experiences also report better current situations. There seems to be something special about these childhood experiences that is particularly linked to better adult mental health during a pandemic. Negative childhood experiences were only associated with stronger symptoms of depression, so it appears that positive childhood experiences are linked to a wider range of outcomes than adverse experiences we usually hear about!

While we cannot say that positive experiences in childhood lead to improved mental health, this growing evidence suggests that increasing positive experiences in childhood may lead to better mental health when children become adults. Identifying people who had a low number of positive experiences as a child – even if they didn’t have a lot of negative experiences – could be helpful in targeting support to those who need it most during older ages. stressors like a global pandemic.

Practical steps to increase positive experiences:

A good thing is that these positive experiences don’t require anything out of the ordinary to implement. For example, you don’t need a million dollars to have a friend or caregiver who cares about you. Here are some steps to augment or reinforce positive childhood experiences in order to potentially improve their subsequent mental and physical health:

  1. It is important to educate parents on the types of experiences children should have that are associated with better mental and physical health in adulthood. For example, having caregivers, friends, and mentors that the child knows are there for him or her, no matter what is extremely important, so that caregivers can help facilitate and strengthen these relationships. Additionally, having a predictable home routine and providing opportunities for fun are ways that caregivers can enhance positive childhood experiences.
  2. Knowing which types of experiences are most important to foster in children helps us decide what resources we should provide to caregivers. For example, providing parents with financial resources to help them be there for their child, such as a living wage or paid time off, will give them time to be there for their child instead of having to work multiple jobs. In addition, these resources can reduce the financial pressure on caregivers, allowing them to have more mental space to be present and receptive to children without having to worry about money.
  3. Adult therapy that reinforces positive childhood memories could be an accessible resource for adults during difficult times. Reinforcing those positive childhood memories could also lay the groundwork for creating more positive experiences for their own children, which could improve the mental health of the next generation.

Taking time to reflect on positive childhood experiences could be especially helpful in improving your mood and feeling better during these stressful times. And increasing these positive experiences for children in your own life can be a great way to improve the mental health of the next generation!

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