Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are known to cause multiple types of illnesses and early death later in life (Felitti et al., 1998). ACEs cause untold misery and heartache because they shake the very fundamental foundations of who we believe we are and how we perceive our world.

Much research has been done since the ACE study performed by Kaiser Permanente, overseen by Dr. Vincent Felitti, where more than 45,000 people were studied to measure how many adverse childhood experiences they had endured.

To better appreciate us who live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder it is vital to first understand how ACEs could have been avoided so we can keep them from perpetuating from our generation to the next.

This piece will introduce the research and how using HOPE can mitigate some of the adverse childhood experiences’ effects by exposure to positive childhood experiences.

Research on ACEs and a Child’s Brain

While Dr. Felitti was leading the ACEs study, a group of scientists studied the outcomes of an overload of stress hormones on the brains of children. Stress hormones are chemicals released into the brain to prepare the body for the fight/flight/freeze response to danger.

Children whose stress hormones cannot return to baseline because of repeated and overwhelming trauma can’t learn in school, have difficulty trusting adults, and have healthy relationships with peers.

As these stressed-out kids grow, they often turn to biochemicals such as nicotine, alcohol, and drugs (both illicit and prescribed) to alleviate their anxiety, depression, feelings of guilt and shame, plus their inability to focus.

It is also true that unrelenting trauma in childhood harms the developing brains of the children who experience it. Suppose a child is in a constant state of fear. In that case, their brain will adapt to survive within its environment leading to impaired development of areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex (logical thinking) and the hippocampus (responsible for memory consolidation and retrieval). On the other hand, the amygdala (emotional response) becomes more active, leading to the child becoming more vigilant and sometimes overly so (Navalta et al. 2018).

When the child becomes an adult, they may find themselves experiencing many different mental and physical health challenges. To make matters worse, pass the problems they are experiencing on to their children through their altered genes (Lang et al., 2019).

However, these horrific outcomes are not inevitable as experiencing positive childhood experiences, and HOPE can lessen their impacts.

Research on How Positive Childhood Experiences Change the Outcomes for Children Experiencing ACEs

Fortunately for us, the human brain is pliable and can be reshaped by new experiences. Resilience research has shown that asking for help, developing trusting relationships, and forming a positive attitude can help those exposed to ACEs improve their lives (Sheffler et al., 2019).

It is well-known that when a young child is nurtured, they can withstand negative experiences such as major surgery. Positive childhood experiences (PCEs) and supportive relationships also allow for buffering so that children can withstand or recover from ACEs.

There are four broad categories of PCEs that help encourage health, functioning, and quality of life outcomes for children: nurturing and supportive relationships; safe and stable environments that are protective; constructive social engagement and connectedness; and social plus emotional competencies (Shefler 2019).

Positive childhood experiences (aka counter-ACEs) lead to protections against ill health in adults who have experienced ACEs. A paper written in 2019 had this to say in its conclusion:

“Overall, the findings suggest that counter-ACEs protect against poor adult health and lead to better adult wellness. When ACEs scores are moderate, counter-ACEs largely neutralize the negative effects of ACEs on adult health. Ultimately, the results demonstrate that a public health approach to promoting positive childhood experiences may promote better lifelong health.” (Crandall et al. 2019)

The bottom line, if children are nurtured and free from trauma, they can gain mastery over all four domains and establish a basis for future learning.

Health Outcomes of Positive Experiences (HOPE)

A newer line of research is focusing on the effects and outcomes of health outcomes of positive experiences (HOPE) as related to children’s and adult’s overall health.

The HOPE framework states that improving the lives of children exposed to ACEs (i.e., toxic stress) requires an intentional and informed effort to reduce the adversity they face and promote positive experiences. Thus, the focus of HOPE is to promote positive childhood experiences that help create strong foundations for learning, plus physical and mental health.

Regarding who can offer this vital help to children, any caregiver can take up the responsibility of changing the trajectory to a child who faces or has faced traumatic experiences.

Three guiding principles form the foundation for understanding and implementing the HOPE framework.

  1. The interplay of individual, community, societal, and relational factors need to be addressed to achieve the best child health outcomes.
  2. Caregiver and child health and well-being are inextricably linked. This means that positive experiences must promote both child and caregiver relationships.
  3. The health of a child incorporates cognitive, social, physical, and emotional outcomes.

To explain further, to promote healthy outcomes for both caregivers and children, no aspect of their life must be left untouched. Work to aid children’s health and positive childhood experiences must include reaching out to their caregivers and teaching them how to change the outcomes for the children they care for by giving them the love and attention they deserve while also taking good care of themselves.

Pulling It All Together

You might be wondering by now how understanding more about positive childhood experiences can help you now that you are grown.

The goal of this piece about positive childhood experiences and their effect on adverse childhood experiences is to help you understand yourself better and have hope that you can move on and live well.

It is never too late to implement positive experiences into your life, and your brain is not stagnant. It is pliable and capable of growing and changing with each new experience you feed it. If you choose to feed your brain on the negative aspects of your life, your brain will respond by giving you a poor outcome. However, if you feed your brain on positivity and good experiences, it will respond by experiencing better mental and physical health outcomes.

Don’t ever give up on yourself or your abilities to change the narrative of your story. Positive experiences accompanied by positive thinking can and will have a considerable impact on you and your children’s lives.

“If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride – and never quit, you’ll be a winner. The price of victory is high, but so are the rewards.” –  Bear Bryant

“Some people say I have attitude – maybe I do… but I think you have to. You have to believe in yourself when no one else does – that makes you a winner right there.” – Venus Williams

References

Bethell, C., Jones, J., Gombojav, N., Linkenbach, J., & Sege, R. (2019). Positive childhood experiences and adult mental and relational health in a statewide sample: associations across adverse childhood experiences levels. JAMA pediatrics173(11), e193007-e193007.

Crandall, A., Miller, J. R., Cheung, A., Novilla, L. K., Glade, R., Novilla, M. L. B., … & Hanson, C. L. (2019). ACEs and counter-ACEs: How positive and negative childhood experiences influence adult health. Child abuse & neglect96, 104089.

Cruz, T. H., & Woelk, L. (2019). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Policies and Practices for Prevention and Intervention.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American journal of preventive medicine14(4), 245-258.

Lang, J., McKie, J., Smith, H., McLaughlin, A., Gillberg, C., Shiels, P. G., & Minnis, H. (2019). Adverse childhood experiences, epigenetics and telomere length variation in childhood and beyond: a systematic review of the literature. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 1-10.

Masten, A.S. (2014). Global perspectives on resilience in children and youth. Child Development, 85(1), 6-20

Navalta, C. P., McGee, L., & Underwood, J. (2018). Adverse childhood experiences, brain development, and mental health: A call for neurocounseling. Journal of Mental Health Counseling40(3), 266-278.

Sheffler, J. L., Piazza, J. R., Quinn, J. M., Sachs-Ericsson, N. J., & Stanley, I. H. (2019). Adverse childhood experiences and coping strategies: Identifying pathways to resiliency in adulthood. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping32(5), 594-609.

 

If you or a loved one live in the despair and isolation that comes with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, please, come to us for help. CPTSD Foundation offers a wide range of services, including:

All our services are reasonably priced, and some are even free. So, to gain more insight into how complex post-traumatic stress disorder is altering your life and how you can overcome it, sign-up; we will be glad to help you.  If you cannot afford to pay, go to www.cptsdfoundation.org/scholarship to apply for aid. We only wish to serve you.

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