New Report: Positive childhood experiences make for healthier adults

Several years ago, I attended a meeting about providing home visitors and other supports to young parents and their children. During the break, the charismatic leader of a wonderful program talked to me about her frustrations: Her staff spent their days with the young families screening for problems like domestic violence, depression, drug and alcohol use, and homelessness. On Saturday mornings, on their own time and with their own money, program staff gathered the young moms and babies at a playground to relax and play together. All of the front line staff who worked with the families knew that they needed the time to relax with the children, and to have a safe place to play. However, the program board insisted that the most important things were evidence based screening and referral protocols.

It turns out that the staff were right: Children need positive experiences to develop and grow into healthy adults. With the support of Casey Family Programs, several early childhood experts produced a new report, Balancing Adverse Childhood Experiences with HOPE (Health Outcomes of Positive Experiences). This report pulls together results from four separate population surveys. The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) demonstrated that positive parenting practices produced children who were resilient and had healthier more functional lives – even in the face of adversity. We added new questions about positive childhood experiences to the 2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey conducted in Wisconsin. We learned that adults who recalled warm, nurturing relationships with their families and communities became healthier adults. In particular, the survey showed that these positive factors lessened the poor health outcomes experienced by adults who recalled multiple childhood adversities.

While the data may convince many in the policy world, parents and other adults already get it. According to a recent population survey conducted by and reported for the first time in the HOPE report, there is wide consensus among American adults of all ethnicities about the importance of positive parenting practices – the same practices that the NSCH survey associated with healthier children. Another set of surveys, conducted for Prevent Child Abuse America by the Montana Institute, demonstrated that American adults were willing to intervene personally and support policies that protect young children.

The HOPE report supports the public health approach to the prevention of child abuse and neglect that emphasizes the importance of safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments. Clinically, the newly released guidance for pediatric practice, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, emphasizes the need to help strengthen families. This report adds important new evidence supporting these changes, from an approach based strictly on risk, to a more holistic and supportive approach.

With these findings in hand, I can go back to the program for young parents – and to their board –  and tell them that taking the young parents to the playground, helping them deepen their social connections, confidence, and skills, may be the most important thing that they do.

Robert Sege is Chief Medical Officer at Health Resources in Action, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Balancing Adverse Childhood Experiences with HOPE