Positive Childhood Experiences, the Flipside of Trauma

a team of 4 toy soldiers guarding a Rubik's cube
Image by herval / CC BY

Just about everyone is familiar with the concept of traumatic childhood experiences, as well as how they can profoundly shape a person’s life well into adulthood.

What’s far less familiar is another, opposite concept: Positive childhood experiences.

A recent study dug into the prevalence of positive childhood experiences as well as their role in mental health later on life. Here’s what it found:

  • Adults who reported more positive childhood experiences were less likely to have clinical depression or poor mental health in adulthood.
  • They were also more likely to report having healthy interpersonal relationships in adulthood.

“This study offers the hopeful possibility that children and adults can thrive despite an accumulation of negative childhood experiences,” leads study author Bethell said in a statement regarding the study. “People assume eliminating adversity automatically results in good health outcomes, but many people reporting lower adversity in childhood still had poorer mental and relational health outcomes if they did not also report having had positive childhood experiences.”

In light of these findings, the researchers argued that when it comes to childhood experiences that there needs to be a two-pronged approach:

  • Increasing positive childhood experiences.
  • Decreasing traumatic childhood experiences.

The Potential Role of Negativity Bias

This actually makes a lot of sense to me, but the reality of negativity bias leads me to believe that you need quite a few more positive than negative experiences for the good to outweigh the bad.  As I wrote in an earlier installment of this series, negativity bias is a well-documented phenomenon that you’ll find in basically every human being: The tendency, all else being equal, for us to cognitively and emotionally weight negative experiences WAY MORE than we do positive experiences.

How much more? Well, the amount has has varied in research depending on the study design, the intensity of the experiences, and the nature of the interaction (lovers, friends, family coworkers, schoolmates, etc). Available research seems to range at the low end from 4:1 all the way up to 7:1.

But one thing is clear: You need a lot of positive to outweigh a negative. In general.

One would think the same would be true of childhood experiences.

But even if it does take a lot of positive to outweigh a negative, the idea that any amount could have an impact is encouraging. Since you can’t make trauma un-happen.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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