Family, Kids & Relationships

The 7 Keys To a Happy Childhood, According To Science

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A new scientific study recently released in JAMA Pediatrics identified seven specific positive childhood experiences that are linked to a much lower chance of depression in adulthood. 

These underlying positive factors even helped people who had suffered major trauma in childhood, including ”physical or emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, and household dysfunctions such as substance abuse, parental incarceration, and divorce.”

The research, led by Christina Bethell, PhD, MBA, MPH at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, showed that adults who report having social and emotional support from their family, friends, and community in childhood were up to 72 percent less likely to suffer from depression or other signs of poor mental health as adults. 

The researchers concluded that promoting the seven positive childhood experiences studied could directly help our kids grow up to be happier adults. The great news is that these are things that any parent can work on. The positive experiences participants in the study reported were:

They were able to talk to their family about feelings. 

That’s why it’s so important to never shut down your kids’ difficult emotions, but to help them find the best ways to express them instead. 

Their family stood by them during hard times.

It’s all about positive encouragement and unconditional love—and not shaming kids when they’re having a tough time with something.

They enjoyed participating in community traditions. 

From charity walks to Sunday potlucks, finding activities for you and your kids to do with relatives, friends, or neighbors is not only fun but actually good for everyone’s mental health.

They felt a sense of belonging in high school. 

This one is not easy for parents, but encouraging your kid to be themselves and to find something that they genuinely like doing (whether it’s sports, clubs, social, or academics) is a start. Researchers note that this wasn’t measured in participants who didn’t attend school or were homeschooled.

They felt supported by friends. 

As parents we might not feel like we have a lot of control over this one, but we can model from the start how to be a good friend to others and how to open up about our feelings with friends.

They had at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in them. 

Having close relatives and family friends around makes life easier for parents and kids alike. If you don’t have the benefit of loved ones nearby, you can form positive relationships with favorite teachers, librarians, and coaches.

They felt safe and protected by an adult in their home. 

This might seem like a no-brainer, but not all kids have this privilege. The key here is not just providing a safe environment, but making sure that the security is something your kid always knows in their heart is there. 

Another study released this month from Brigham Young University (BYU) supports these findings. Using online surveys, professor Ali Crandall and other BYU coauthors discovered that positive childhood experiences—like having good neighbors, regular meals or a caregiver you feel safe with—have the potential to negate harmful health effects caused by adverse childhood experiences.

Amidst all the modern-day pressures of keeping our children healthy, encouraging them to excel in school, and making sure they’re safe online, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s most important—helping to secure their happiness in adulthood.

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.