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Supportive adults help protect children from mental health issues 

A new study led by Dr. Cristiane Duarte of Columbia University has revealed a significant insight into mental health issues. The research team found that supportive relationships with adults during childhood can significantly mitigate the risks of depression and anxiety in adulthood, even in the face of adverse childhood experiences. 

“For kids, an extremely important resilience factor is a warm, nurturing relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult,” said lead author Dr. Sara VanBronkhorst. “Our study demonstrates that children who have at least one positive, committed adult-child relationship are less likely to experience depression, anxiety and perceived stress later in life.”

This finding is crucial as it underlines the protective role these relationships play against long-term mental health issues.

Focus of the study

The experts targeted a critical research gap by focusing on marginalized and minoritized youth, who often face multiple adversities. To better understand resilience factors, the team used data from the Boricua Youth Study, which tracked three generations of Puerto Rican families over 20 years. 

The team looked at adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) at three points during childhood. These experiences include physical or emotional abuse; household violence; neglect; and caregiver mental illness, death, or incarceration.

The researchers measured seven sociocultural factors associated with resilience, which included social relationships (maternal warmth and friendships). They also measured the following mental health outcomes during young adulthood: generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, substance use disorder, and perceived stress.

Key findings

The analysis revealed that positive social relationships, specifically non-peer relationships, were linked to lower instances of mental health issues in adulthood. 

This finding is pivotal, suggesting that the presence of at least one positive adult-child relationship can significantly reduce the likelihood of these mental health issues later in life.

The study also uncovered some unexpected results regarding religion. Contrary to common belief, high levels of family devoutness were associated with increased perceived stress among young adults who had experienced high ACEs. 

“With factors such as religiosity, the story may be more nuanced,” said Dr. VanBronkhorst. “One explanation for this unexpected finding could be that religious families may experience higher levels of shame and guilt related to ACEs, such as parental substance use or incarceration.”

Resilience factors 

Furthermore, the study authors noted that while certain resilience factors were associated with reduced stress and mental health disorders, none were linked to a decrease in substance use disorders. This observation highlights the complexity of mental health and the necessity for multifaceted approaches to prevention and intervention.

Dr. Duarte emphasized the need to expand our understanding of resilience, suggesting future studies should explore the impact of factors like financial resources, racism, and social equity. 

Study implications 

Dr. VanBronkhorst, who also works as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, sees firsthand the challenges families face in forming these protective relationships. 

“The parents I work with see their kids struggling, they want to form these positive relationships, but so much gets in the way,” said Dr. VanBronkhorst.

“We should be helping them with parenting classes and family therapy; we can educate teachers and community members. But we should also be looking at larger, structural, interventions that could reduce the experiences of adversities and the causes of stress that interfere with adults forming bonds that can buffer children from stress.”

“In this study we wanted to acknowledge that resilience cannot be reduced to individual attributes that one may be born with,” added Dr. Duarte. “Resilience is a process. To engage in this process, children and caregivers need access to resources in their environment that foster strong, responsive relationships and meaningful experiences.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

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