Does continuous trusted adult support in childhood impart life-course resilience against adverse childhood experiences - a retrospective study on adult health-harming behaviours and mental well-being

BMC Psychiatry. 2017 Mar 23;17(1):110. doi: 10.1186/s12888-017-1260-z.


Background: Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) including child abuse and household problems (e.g. domestic violence) increase risks of poor health and mental well-being in adulthood. Factors such as having access to a trusted adult as a child may impart resilience against developing such negative outcomes. How much childhood adversity is mitigated by such resilience is poorly quantified. Here we test if access to a trusted adult in childhood is associated with reduced impacts of ACEs on adoption of health-harming behaviours and lower mental well-being in adults.

Methods: Cross-sectional, face-to-face household surveys (aged 18-69 years, February-September 2015) examining ACEs suffered, always available adult (AAA) support from someone you trust in childhood and current diet, smoking, alcohol consumption and mental well-being were undertaken in four UK regions. Sampling used stratified random probability methods (n = 7,047). Analyses used chi squared, binary and multinomial logistic regression.

Results: Adult prevalence of poor diet, daily smoking and heavier alcohol consumption increased with ACE count and decreased with AAA support in childhood. Prevalence of having any two such behaviours increased from 1.8% (0 ACEs, AAA support, most affluent quintile of residence) to 21.5% (≥4 ACEs, lacking AAA support, most deprived quintile). However, the increase was reduced to 7.1% with AAA support (≥4 ACEs, most deprived quintile). Lower mental well-being was 3.27 (95% CIs, 2.16-4.96) times more likely with ≥4 ACEs and AAA support from someone you trust in childhood (vs. 0 ACE, with AAA support) increasing to 8.32 (95% CIs, 6.53-10.61) times more likely with ≥4 ACEs but without AAA support in childhood. Multiple health-harming behaviours combined with lower mental well-being rose dramatically with ACE count and lack of AAA support in childhood (adjusted odds ratio 32.01, 95% CIs 18.31-55.98, ≥4 ACEs, without AAA support vs. 0 ACEs, with AAA support).

Conclusions: Adverse childhood experiences negatively impact mental and physical health across the life-course. Such impacts may be substantively mitigated by always having support from an adult you trust in childhood. Developing resilience in children as well as reducing childhood adversity are critical if low mental well-being, health-harming behaviours and their combined contribution to non-communicable disease are to be reduced.

Keywords: ACEs; Alcohol; Deprivation; Diet; Mental well-being; Non-communicable disease; Parenting; Resilience; Smoking.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / prevention & control*
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Domestic Violence / prevention & control*
  • Domestic Violence / psychology*
  • Female
  • Health Behavior*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Parenting / psychology*
  • Quality of Life / psychology*
  • Resilience, Psychological*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Social Support*
  • Trust*
  • Young Adult