More than four out of 10 children in Maryland have experienced a traumatic event such as the death or incarceration of a parent, or a drug addiction or mental health problem of a family member, according to a new analysis of national data.
Nationally, the so-called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, were even more widespread with 46 percent of children reporting at least one, according to the analysis by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative done in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The analysis also found that 15.4 percent of children in Maryland and 20 percent of children nationally experienced two or more such adverse events.
The experiences can undermine children's long-term health and well-being, researchers said. The children have far higher risks for smoking, alcoholism, and other unhealthy behaviors, and for experiencing depression, heart and other chronic diseases.
"Every child deserves a healthy start," said Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "A loving home, a good school, a safe neighborhood—these things are the foundation for a long and happy life, yet too many children don't have them."
The analysis showed that children affected by trauma were from families of all socio-economic and racial backgrounds. Because there were far more white children in the United States, there were more white children with ACEs, the analysis finds. Blacks and Hispanics, as well as children from low-income households, however, were still more likely to have experienced such events.
Children in Baltimore are more likely to have experienced a traumatic event than those elsewhere in Maryland, said Christina Bethell, director of the Hopkins' Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative. This analysis is based on a past set of data, which has been collected periodically by federal health and census officials as part of the National Survey of Children's Health.
The researchers say preventing traumatic events to begin with is most ideal for the well-being of children. To that end, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports policies such as home visits for at-risk parents, quality child care and early education programs, safe housing and community violence prevention programs.
When trauma is not prevented, Bethell said teaching children coping skills and encouraging strong relationships with caring adults can reduce the negative effects. Children who learn resilience are more likely to be engaged in school and not drop out, for example.
Children and adults can be helped at any age, she said, though intervening early is most helpful in reducing the negative effects on the children who have experienced a traumatic events. The effects can compound over time if left unattended, she said. Research also shows that the effects can harm other children who have not experienced the negative events directly but share a classroom or neighborhood with children who have ACEs, she said.
"The good news is we can teach resilience," Bethell said. "We can start now to promote the positive wherever they are and whether they have ACEs or not."