New research shows that certain family, social, and community supports may boost a child’s chances of thriving in the face of adversity.
According to researchers, people who experience four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as economic hardship, exposure to violence, or the death of a loved one, are more likely to have lasting physical and mental health problems.
But a new research abstract presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2016 Meeting identifies several protective factors to help children avoid those problems.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, in an attempt to gauge children’s health and well-being, physical, emotional and behavioral health indicators, family context and neighborhood environment.
“We focused on questions about ACEs exposure, but also family, social, and community assets that could serve to moderate that risk or enhance resilience,” said lead author Iman Sharif, M.D., M.P.H., chief of the division of general pediatrics at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., and co-director of the Nemours Primary Care Research Collaborative.
She reports that her research team found that even when children were exposed to adverse childhood experiences, certain family and community strengths appeared to have a protective effect on health, social, and behavioral outcomes.
Among the most influential of these were having access to patient-centered, coordinated medical care, mothers who were in excellent mental health, and community supports. That support was gauged by responses to statements such as “I have adults I can trust, people to count on.”
Additional protective factors identified in the study included fathers in excellent mental health, mothers and fathers who had completed at least some college, living in a neighborhood with amenities such as sidewalks, a library, a park and a recreation center, and mothers in good physical health.
“The research for the past 20 years has clearly demonstrated the relationship between ACEs exposure and adult physical and mental health outcomes,” Sharif said. “This study adds to the emerging literature on the impact of ACEs on child health outcomes, and goes further to identify the factors that can help children thrive even when exposed to ACEs.”
The findings support earlier research showing that ACEs exposure does not render health systems and communities “helpless,” she added.
“This shows there are things we can do,” she said. “With appropriate screening to identify children at risk, we can support children and families through the patient-centered medical home, linking parents to mental health services, and building community social supports to help children succeed.”