For many years, experts have studied the impact and importance of positive experiences during childhood. Not until recently have researchers explored the opposite side of the coin and considered how adverse childhood experiences have impact on lifelong health and opportunity.
One hallmark study, which explores how rough experiences in childhood can have tremendous impact on outcomes later in life, is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. The study links adverse childhood experiences (like abuse, neglect or other household challenges such as having an incarcerated parent) to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential and early death later in life. At its basic, an adverse childhood experiences score is a tally of the different types of adverse experiences in childhood, and is used to assess the relationship between those experiences and negative health and well-being later in life. According to the study, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be, and the higher your risk of problems later in life.
Just one caring, safe, adult relationship early in life gives any child a much better shot at growing up healthy and happy.
So, we all get the adverse childhood experiences score. But what can be done? Although scores are valuable, what scores don’t tally are the positive experiences in childhood that can help build resilience and mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma. We can’t forget that what really underscores the study and others is the importance of preventing adverse childhood experiences before they happen, and how safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments in a child’s life can help them reach their full potential. How can we, as adults, bring positive experiences to children who are growing up with adverse experiences? How can we help build their resilience and impact their outcomes? What kind of positive experiences do they really need?
That’s where research on what kids need to succeed comes into play. After many years of examining intangible strengths and development, experts from the Search Institute have identified a set of skills, experiences, relationships and behaviors that help enable kids to develop into successful adults. Research shows the more of these building blocks young people acquire, the better their chances of becoming happy, healthy, contributing members of society. It is with this framework, we as adults, can bring positive experiences to all children, especially those growing up with adverse childhood experiences. So what are the key developmental assets, and how can we play a part?
You have the power to help children grow up and reach their full potential.
Support is one of the major building blocks of success. Whether it’s family support, a caring school climate, or other supportive adults, research strongly suggest that just one caring, safe, adult relationship early in life gives any child a much better shot at growing up healthy and happy. Kids need to know they are not alone.
Another key developmental asset is empowerment. Children need to feel valued. They need to feel safe and have a loving, violence free environment. They need to feel liked and respected and be given opportunities to make meaningful contributions in order to strengthen their self-determination and social responsibility.
Boundaries and expectations are another major building block of success. Having clear, consistent rules and consequences, both at home and in school, make everyone’s life just a little bit easier. High expectations and encouragement from adults help kids develop a sense of purpose and value to do well, while positive peer influences and adult role models promote healthy, responsible behaviors.
So, what’s the common theme? A positive and caring adult role model. A nurturing community. Regardless of adverse childhood experiences score, adults play a vital role in fostering resilience and healthy child development. Whether you’re a parent, teacher or neighbor, you are the external structure that helps create a positive, caring and nurturing environment. You have the power to help children grow up and reach their full potential.
Andrea Harrison is an outreach specialist at Brigid Collins Family Support Center in Bellingham.