As an inpatient child psychiatrist, I see children with some of the most difficult emotional and behavioral issues. And among them, children with adverse childhood experiences (ACE) make up a significant portion. But early childhood adversity is common not just among children who present to the hospital. In the landmark ACE study, which was an ongoing collaboration between Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess impact of ACEs on various health outcomes, 40% percent of the participants reported experiencing two or more ACEs.1 Subsequent studies have shown even higher numbers. The study by Copeland et al. on traumatic events based on the Great Smokey Mountainsshowed that more than two-thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by the age of 16 years.2
The significance of this finding cannot be overstated. It is clear that the cumulative incidences of ACEs are associated with poorer health outcomes in a graded dose-response relationship. Those exposed are at great risk of developing PTSD, ADHD, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorder.3 Furthermore, they also are at risk for developing asthma, obesity, ischemic heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, autoimmune disease, and sexually transmitted disease.4 They have lower quality of life, use more health care services, and die nearly 20 years younger.5
Currently, the biology of adverse childhood experiences is being elucidated. The deleterious effects of chronically elevated cortisol leading to smaller hippocampal volume through atrophy, neurotoxicity, and disruption of neurogenesis has been demonstrated in adults, but children and adolescents have been found to have reduced medial and posterior corpus callosum.6-10 Other alterations include changes in EEG activity, and dysregulation of the sympathetic nervous system.11-13 New systems or neuropeptides that could potentially be beneficial in the treatment of trauma include tempering down of the locus coeruleus–norepinephrine system, the anxiolytic effect of neuropeptide Y, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor.14,15
Despite all the progress, the treatment for trauma remains imperfect. Depending on the presenting symptoms, stimulants, alpha-agonists (guanfacine or clonidine), alpha-1 blocker, and/or SSRIs all could be a good first step. Medication could reduce the burden of some of the symptoms, but its effects are limited. During the 1970s, researchers started noticing that some children were able to thrive despite substantial risk factors for mental illness. This led to research identifying individual and environmental factors that could be protective against ACEs.
So, what is resilience? It is the development of positive adaptations in the context of significant adversity.16 But this ability is not purely incumbent on the child. The individual characteristics that lead to resilience such as internal locus of control, optimism, and determination also are dependent on their environment. As such, it is a complex dynamic interplay of genetics, temperament, experience, and environmental supports. As much as the environment can affect resilience, this gives us opportunities to help the child be more resilient, perhaps before an adverse event happens.
One, emphasize the family! A strong family relationship is among the most robust predictor of resilient adaptation. Early experiences and attachments will shape the lens through which people view their subsequent relationships and place them on probabilistic trajectories of “relatively good or bad adaptation.”17 And just what constitutes “good parenting”? The authoritative parenting style that balances appropriate controls and warmth with consistency and responsiveness generally lead to better outcomes.18 Other important features include reasonable limit-setting, monitoring, and containment.19, 20 Clinicians with expertise in one of the parent-coaching manuals (i.e.,by McMahon and Forehand; and and others) can be helpful in answering parenting questions whether individually or in the group setting.
In addition, parental mental health issues also can adversely affect family relationships. Based on previous studies, mothers who suffer from depression have more difficulty being responsive and warm to their child.21 They are often times more punitive and less consistent. Children of mothers with depression are at risk for internalizing, externalizing, and general psychopathology.22 Mothers with history of ACEs are less able to modulate stress and model coping skills. As such, it can be just as important to screen the parents for mental health issues and refer to the appropriate clinician.
Two, community supports also can facilitate development of resilience. Studies have shown participants in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters programs of America exhibit more positive behavior such as better academic behaviors, better relationships with family and friends, and decreased substance use.23 Furthermore, studies on minority students (African American and Hispanic) suggest improved relationship with teachers led to less behavioral problems and improved social competence. Religious affiliations and other social supports can serve similar purposes as well.24
Three, keep in mind the malleability of the child. Many child attributes are dependent on environmental influences and resilience should focus more on what adults can do to bolster the child’s own efforts.
Dr. Chung is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, Burlington, and practices at Champlain Valley Physician’s Hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Email him at.