A 1998 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that children who experience four or more traumatic experiences were expected to have worse health outcomes compared to those who don’t. A team of BYU psychologists recently discovered that positive reinforcers in the lives of children who have undergone traumatic events may negate negative health outcomes.
The earlier study found that individuals who experienced traumatic events as children lived about 20 years less than the average person and were more likely to develop negative health outcomes, including higher BMI, smoking rates, depression and chronic health conditions.
Kayla Taylor, diagnosed with PTSD in November of 2013, offered her perspective on being an adult who experienced trauma as a child.
“It was really disheartening for me when I Googled trauma victims,” Taylor said. “A lot of the research that talked about my future stated that I wasn’t going to be alive as long as someone else, which can get super depressing. I also learned about it in trauma classes for my education degree. I felt really out of place checking all of the boxes that said I was in the trauma category.”
The new research, conducted by BYU professor Ali Crandall and her coauthors, discovered that even if a trauma victim had four or more adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, having a high number of advantageous childhood experiences, or Counter-ACEs, lessened the negative effect of ACEs on adult health.
“A Counter-ACE can be any adult that is a caregiver or someone that the child feels safe with,” Crandall said. “A teacher who cared. Another adult that’s not a caregiver but the child felt they could confide in.”
Crandall said the amount of time the child interacted with the positive reinforcement from a healthy adult figure didn’t matter. The results of the research were based more on whether or not the child ever experienced a positive association with an adult.
“Positive experiences on their own contribute to better health,” Crandall said. “We looked at physical and mental health, and Counter-ACEs proved to have a positive effect.”
Crandall’s team said that the one takeaway people should get from this research is to be an accountable adult and strive to set a positive influence for surrounding children, especially if they suspect the child has experienced trauma.
“Be the Counter-ACE,” Crandall said. She stated that the main responsibility of providing positive experiences fall on the family. However, if the family of the trauma victim was not able to provide this, it is even more important for other adults to reach out.
“Building trust takes time,” Crandall said. “If all you can do is say, ‘Hi,’ or send them a text, that works towards building the trust. Try to be there. Be meaningful. Be the first step.”
When asked how adults should reach out to these victims, Crandall and her team turned the question around and stated that the trauma victims should stipulate how they receive help or are approached.
Taylor said the best method of approach is to simply be there. She also said adults should be present but not threatening in the child’s life because victims are usually frightened of people and can be paranoid.
“I didn’t want anyone to approach me about being abused. I felt I would get in trouble if someone talked to me directly about it,” Taylor said. “The best I felt was when I knew there were people around me who cared about me. Reach out and help these kids, or even adults, to not feel alone and go to the proper authorities. Trusting someone is very hard for us. But we’ll always remember the ones who cared.”
If you have suffered or know someone who has suffered from trauma, please contact the CAPS clinic for student aid regarding various types of trauma, including physical, psychological, emotional and sexual abuse.