Reducing, tackling and mitigating experiences that hurt or damage the physical and mental health of children as they grow up has been a major focus for policymakers, practitioners and researchers. In recent months research led by Rebecca Lacey looking at Adverse Childhood Experiences – their different impacts and lifecourse implications- has featured regularly on our blog. But what about the impacts of positive experiences in childhood and adolescence? What role do they play and what can they tell us about the best ways to support children to live healthy, happy lives? In an interesting new paper, Rebecca from UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health has joined forces with Naomi Priest from the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute to look at the impacts of both adverse and negative experiences on children in Australia and the UK. In this blog they outline the research, what they find and provide some food for thought on what the findings might mean for intervention.
Living in an environment where they experience or witness violence, substance misuse, mental illness and even parent imprisonment is sadly all too common for children around the world. It’s estimated that somewhere between 18 and 35% of individuals experience at least two childhood adversities. In Australia that’s the case for half of children by the age of 10-11 and in the UK two thirds by the age of 16.
Those children are much more likely to carry high levels of inflammation in their body. This can be the result of experiencing stressful and distressing situations and can lead to poor health not just at the time but later on in life. It goes without saying that this is bad for the children and young people themselves but also for their families whilst the broader social and economic costs have been estimated at millions of pounds.
Recently, though there have been calls to shift the focus of child health research away from all the bad things that happen to children and the assumption that they are on a path to poor health. Rather many believe a focus on the benefits of positive experiences such as positive parenting, trusting and supportive relationships, supportive neighbourhood and home learning environments, social engagement and enjoyment could yield more ideas for intervening early.
So a large part of our research focuses on the role of positive childhood experiences on inflammation and the relationship between the two. Our thinking was that a better understanding of this intersection might provide some ideas about the timing and types of intervention that might prevent inflammation and the knock on long term harms to children and young people.
We were able to use 2 excellent longitudinal studies that followed the same children over time in Australia and the UK. These were the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Although not conducted identically, there was plenty of information collected over a number of years in each study to yield interesting information and to enable some comparisons to see what we might learn from these different country contexts.
Levels of inflammation
Both studies contained information on negative and positive experiences early on in the children’s lives, with later health checks and measurements providing us with the information we needed on levels of inflammation.
Around half of participants in the Australian study had had multiple positive (50 per cent) and negative (44 per cent) experiences as young children. In the UK the figures were similar for negative experiences (55 per cent) and higher for positive (72 per cent). We think this might reflect the longer period of time covered with these children.It might also reflect that the Australian study is representative of the Australian population while the UK study is not.
In line with our expectations, children in both studies exposed to adverse experiences typically showed higher levels of inflammation while those who experienced positive experiences over the same period tended to have lower levels. Digging down into different types of negative and positive experience yielded less clear links.
One thing we noted in the Australian study but not in the UK study was that lower inflammation linked to multiple positive experiences in childhood seemed to be undermined by multiple negative experiences. The fewer bad things these particular children had experienced, the greater the reduction in inflammation.
We think the discrepancies in findings between the two countries might be something to do with country differences more generally, but also possibly be something to do with how the different studies were carried out, for example how negative and positive experiences are captured and measured.
Growing body of research
We’re pleased with this very first study looking at the relationship between positive experiences and inflammation in children and adolescents in ‘the presence of’ adverse experiences. We hope this will be part of a growing body of research that moves away from the earlier very deficit-focused perspective. A sole focus on reducing adverse experiences isn’t going to be enough to give all children a positive start in life.
There is a lot more work to be done here to understand the role of positive experiences on other outcomes such as mental health and academic success not just in Australia and the UK but around the world.
For now we can say our results highlight the potential differential benefit of positive experiences on reducing inflammation, depending on concurrent exposure to adverse experiences.
This suggests that optimal policy and practice opportunities should focus on intervening to both promote positive experiences and prevent and address adversities. Families, schools and communities are key to this. For example, strengths-based mental health initiatives such as Within My Reach in the USA and Be You in Australia have multi-sector collaborations and engagement with families, schools, communities, and health systems that aim to target both adverse experiences and positive experiences, and have shown promising results.
- The effect of adverse and positive experiences on inflammatory markers in Australian and UK children is research by Naomi Priest and colleagues and is published in Brain, Behaviour and Immunity – Health.
Also of interest:
Factors mitigating the harmful effects of intimate partner violence on adolescents’ depressive symptoms—A longitudinal birth cohort study is research by David Gondek and colleagues and is published in JCPP Advances