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Positive childhood experiences may factor in adult mental health

New, groundbreaking research indicates that positive childhood experiences may not only decrease the risk of depression or poor mental health later in life, but may also counteract any detrimental mental health effects of negative or traumatic childhood experiences. The study, “Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels,” was published online in JAMA Pediatrics on September 9, 2019.


“Over the past decade, there has been a revolution in thinking about child development, with an emphasis on the negative impact of childhood trauma – child abuse or neglect, domestic violence or substance abuse,” said Robert Sege, MD, PhD, Pediatrician and Researcher at Tufts Medical Center at Tufts Medical Center and Senior Author of the study. “Instead, this research focused on the beneficial impact of key positive childhood experiences and found convincing evidence that they dramatically reduce the long-term effects of childhood trauma on adult mental health.”

About the study

More than 6,000 adults in Wisconsin completed a 2015 representative, state-level survey that included questions about their mental health as an adult, and asked them seven additional questions related to positive childhood experiences, such as supportive family interactions, caring relationships with friends and connections in the community. The results were striking. For those who reported six or seven positive childhood experiences, the odds were 72 percent lower of having depression or poor mental health as an adult than for those who recalled only two or fewer positive childhood experiences. Even for those who reported between three and five positive childhood experiences, odds of depression or poor mental health as an adult were 50 percent lower. The associations remained consistent even when respondents recalled multiple negative childhood experiences. 

“Our research shows that positive childhood experiences have an extremely powerful impact on the likelihood of having healthy adult relationships and maintaining sound mental health later in life allowing children to heal from the effects of negative childhood experiences,” said Dr. Sege. “We hope this research will eventually lead to national initiatives to cultivate and promote positive childhood experiences in concert with existing efforts to reduce childhood trauma and other adverse childhood experiences.”

To help advance the study’s important findings, Dr. Sege will launch the Developing the Healthy Outcomes from Positive Experiences (HOPE) initiative on October 1, 2019, to promote the importance of positive childhood experiences and cultivate improved child and family well-being. Generous funding for the new project will be provided by the the JPB Foundation.

The study was developed by a national team of investigators, including Dr. Sege; Christina Bethell, PhD, MPH, MBA; Jennifer Jones, MSW; Narangerel Gombojav, MD, PhD; and Jeff Linkenbach, ED.