Positive Childhood Experiences: Building resilience and mitigating toxic stress through safety and connection

Last time, we mentioned Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) in our blog post about trauma-informed education.
This week we will explore what PCEs are, and how reducing exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) while promoting PCEs awareness can help in shaping resilient, connected and secure children. This foundation prepares children for a healthy and fulfilling adulthood. If ACEs can have such a long-lasting impact on a person’s health and wellbeing, surely PCEs might help mitigate some of the effects of ACEs. At the core of all this is in fact the salutogenic approach we discussed previously: the paradigm that says that what deserves a much more prominent place in public health is not the question of how to prevent illness and disease, but the question of how to maintain and achieve health and wellbeing. Where a pathogenic approach is largely reactive and retrospective, based on anxiety and avoiding risk, salutogenesis is basically a proactive, prospective approach, based on confidence and seeking wellbeing.

In order to clarify PCEs, let us first look at what a good, happy childhood looks like.

What is a happy childhood?

Asking this question might feel strange. However, by making an effort to delineate what a good childhood looks like, it becomes easier to get a good understanding of which experiences make for happy early life years.
There is quite a lot of agreement on the idea that what children need most for a good and happy childhood is a variety of responsive, caring, connected relationships with the adults in the child’s family and community. These nurturing relationships form the secure base a child needs in order to happily and confidently explore their environment. With a secure base in place, going out and about, whether as a baby, a toddler or a teenager, is not scary, but an adventure, a journey that will teach you new stuff while knowing that you can always return to that safe nest that is home. Secure and stable relationships help shape infants into resilient children who then become resilient adults.

What are Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs)?

In order to evaluate the effect Positive Childhood Experiences have in mitigating the effects of ACEs and in building resilience, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University defined the following PCEs and conducted a large-scale research in an adult population at Wisconsin. Seven PCEs were researched. The first three focus on the child’s family environment, and the rest focus on the child’s friends and community. The PCEs are the following:

  1. Feeling able to talk to your family about your feelings
    Sharing feelings and emotions give you a sense of belonging and feeling understood. It is also an important way to coregulate and bring down stress levels, which, in turn, helps to prevent them from becoming toxic. It also is a great opportunity for the parents and caregivers to help children build emotional intelligence by coaching them through their feelings.
  2. Feeling that your family stood by you during difficult times
    The adult’s presence can have a buffering effect when the child is going through difficult times or experiencing stress that could become toxic without that buffering. Their presence, their soothing words, and their holding space can help children feel supported and comforted. It drives home the all-important message that they are not alone, that they are respected in their uniqueness and their emotions.
  3. Feeling safe and protected by an adult at your home
    Feeling safe and protected is a basic human need; in fact, if you do not feel safe, other functions in your body might stop working properly until you have found safety again. There are many ways in which an adult can make a child feel safe and protected, like taking care of them physically by responding to their needs, or talking them through overwhelming experiences and helping them coregulate after a stressful experience.
  4. Having at least 2 adults, that are not your parents, taking genuine interest in you
    Supportive adults with whom a child can form healthy attachments and whom they can turn to, besides their parents, are very important for children. These adults are even more important if the child’s parents have difficulty providing the aforementioned safety and support. They can be extended family members, neighbours, teachers, coaches, counsellors – it can be the most unexpected person, as long as they have a role in the child’s life that allows for moments of connection and experiencing a safe haven in the midst of chaos and overwhelm.
  5. Feeling supported by friends
    Knowing that you have friends to turn to, people who listen to you, who have your back and who will stand tall for you, who laugh and cry with you and understand what you need, are a wealth of support. Again, it is the nurturing, strong and healthy relationships that will help you through the storms by means of the coregulation they have to offer.
  6. Enjoying participating in community traditions
    Traditions help us feel part of a whole. They can help connect extended families, bring people together, and have them participate in traditions. They can help you find a sense of connectedness and purpose. There are lots of examples of communities, for example a neighbourhood, a school, a town or a district, a support group for people with the lived experience of a certain difficulty or disability, a group that is formed to raise awareness about a certain issue, a group around a hobby, and more.
  7. Feeling a sense of belonging in high school (not including those who did not attend school or were homeschooled)
    Feeling a sense of belonging in school can help you build more resilience against adversity. Children who engage with others and in activities in school have higher rates of resilience and lower rates of chronic disease in childhood. Addressing childhood trauma in school settings  deserves to be high on the agenda of national and local policies in order to mitigate the effects of toxic stress and ACEs.

Specific positive experiences such as having the family’s support, family closeness, and responsiveness to health needs, reduce the negative outcomes of ACEs.

The Interactions between PCEs and ACEs

Some studies have researched the interactions between PCEs and ACEs in order to see what are the associations between these two. Surely enough, specific positive experiences such as having the family’s support, family closeness and responsiveness to health needs, reduced the negative outcomes of ACEs, such as unwanted pregnancy and mental health problems in adulthood.
Despite these findings, there are very few studies that have evaluated PCEs and ACEs simultaneously. What we do know is that the more PCEs someone experiences in childhood, the more likely they are to seek emotional and social support as adults, and the better mental health outcomes they probably have.

Conclusion

As you may already have guessed by now, promoting PCEs is something that every community ought to be doing, in order to help prevent ACEs in the first place and help mitigate the effects of ACEs once they have already settled in. If ACEs and toxic stress in childhood can have such a tremendous impact on health and wellbeing even decades later, it doesn’t come as a surprise that PCEs can have a preventive and protective effect. That means that for every community and society, it is worthwhile on so many levels to invest in PCEs. Proactively looking for positive involvement: what a beautiful way to inspire and be inspired!

What are the positive childhood experiences (PCES)? Infographic

Posted in Theorie.