Nearly half of all children in the United States experience an adverse event during childhood that could lead to long-term health or educational consequences, according to new research.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health say the experiences — including parental divorce, a parent’s death, or living with someone who abuses alcohol or drugs — can lead to traumatic stress and impact a child’s healthy development.
The researchers cite the ongoing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. The new study reports on data showing the magnitude of these adverse experiences on kids in the U.S.
Researchers suggest training parents, providers, and communities to help children develop resiliency skills could reduce the impact of unfortunate experiences. The new skills can help the children through the difficult times and help them live a successful life, despite the obstacles.
The findings are published in the journal Health Affairs.
“This study tells us that adverse childhood experiences are common among U.S. children and, as demonstrated in adult studies, have lifelong impacts that begin early in life,” says study leader Christina D. Bethell, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.B.A.
For the study, Bethell and her colleagues analyzed data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health, a survey of parents of 95,677 children under 17 from throughout the United States. The survey included questions about nine adverse childhood experiences as reported by parents.
Events included extreme economic hardship, parental divorce/separation, lived with someone with a drug or alcohol problem, witness or victim of neighborhood violence, lived with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal, witnessed domestic violence, parent served time in jail, treated or judged unfairly due to race/ethnicity, and the death of a parent.
The survey includes myriad data on family and neighborhood environments and parental well-being in addition to children’s schooling and medical care, and contains some data about child resilience.
The study found that more than 22 percent of children represented in the survey had two or more of such childhood experiences. Broken down by state, Utah had the lowest number of children experiencing two or more adverse experiences (16.3 percent) while Oklahoma had the highest (32.8 percent).
Researchers found that children with two or more adverse experiences were more than 2.5-times more likely to repeat a grade in school as well as be disengaged in school compared to those without any such experiences.
Children with adverse childhood experiences were also less likely than those without to live in a protective home environment and have mothers who were healthy.
However, resilience does make a difference as the data suggests training children with chronic conditions on just one aspect of resiliency is linked to more engagement in school and a nearly 50 percent reduction in not having to repeat a grade compared to those who had not learned this skill.
Also a positive: Children and families who received quality health care from a doctor who knows, listens to and ensures children’s whole health care needs are met and coordinated did better than those who did not.
Bethell said parents and children can be taught to recognize and reduce the biologic, emotional and psychological impact of traumatic stress. Children can be taught skills that help then bounce back when faced with a challenge, and to develop a habit of hope instead of despair.
Some of the most promising methods involve simple breathing techniques as well as so-called “trauma-informed” care and community approaches growing in popularity all across the country.
“Adverse childhood events don’t automatically have to have long-term traumatic impacts for children,” Bethell said. “To recognize trauma in children requires widespread awareness and skills-building among adults interacting with children at all levels.”
To do this, experts recommend building a culture of support among family and communities to provide safe, stable and nurturing relationships. “Supporting and teaching the adults in children’s lives to learn to heal from trauma and learn resilience themselves may be the most effective strategy to implement immediately.”