Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels

Christina Bethell, Jennifer Jones, Narangerel Gombojav, Jeff Linkenbach, Robert Sege

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Importance: Associations between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and risks for adult depression, poor mental health, and insufficient social and emotional support have been documented. Less is known about how positive childhood experiences (PCEs) co-occur with and may modulate the effect of ACEs on adult mental and relational health. Objective: To evaluate associations between adult-reported PCEs and (1) adult depression and/or poor mental health (D/PMH) and (2) adult-reported social and emotional support (ARSES) across ACEs exposure levels. Design, Setting, and Participants: Data were from the cross-sectional 2015 Wisconsin Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, a random digit-dial telephone survey of noninstitutionalized Wisconsin adults 18 years and older (n = 6188). Data were weighted to be representative of the entire population of Wisconsin adults in 2015. Data were analyzed between September 2016 and January 2019. Main Outcomes and Measures: The definition of D/PMH includes adults with a depression diagnosis (ever) and/or 14 or more poor mental health days in the past month. The definition of PCEs includes 7 positive interpersonal experiences with family, friends, and in school/the community. Standard Behavioral Risk Factor Survey ACEs and ARSES variables were used. Results: In the 2015 Wisconsin Behavioral Risk Factor Survey sample of adults (50.7% women; 84.9% white), the adjusted odds of D/PMH were 72% lower (OR, 0.28; 95% CI, 0.21-0.39) for adults reporting 6 to 7 vs 0 to 2 PCEs (12.6% vs 48.2%). Odds were 50% lower (OR, 0.50; 95% CI, 0.36-0.69) for those reporting 3 to 5 vs 0 to 2 PCEs (25.1% vs 48.2%). Associations were similar in magnitude for adults reporting 1, 2 to 3, or 4 to 8 ACEs. The adjusted odds that adults reported "always" on the ARSES variable were 3.53 times (95% CI, 2.60-4.80) greater for adults with 6 to 7 vs 0 to 2 PCEs. Associations for 3 to 5 PCEs were not significant. The PCE associations with D/PMH remained stable across each ACEs exposure level when controlling for ARSES. Conclusions and Relevance: Positive childhood experiences show dose-response associations with D/PMH and ARSES after accounting for exposure to ACEs. The proactive promotion of PCEs for children may reduce risk for adult D/PMH and promote adult relational health. Joint assessment of PCEs and ACEs may better target needs and interventions and enable a focus on building strengths to promote well-being. Findings support prioritizing possibilities to foster safe, stable nurturing relationships for children that consider the health outcomes of positive experiences..

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJAMA pediatrics
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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