Childhood Adverse Experiences that Affect Adulthood [+ PDF GUIDE]

by | Mar 8, 2021 | Children's Communication Skills

Did you know that what happens to you as a child will have either a positive or negative impact on your life as an adult? There is a myth that children will not remember anything negative that happens to them when they are young. This is wrong. A child will remember their childhood adverse experiences whether openly or subconsciously.

Every child is different and unique in their development but there are key milestones in every child’s development that act as checkpoints. These milestones cover  development in the following areas:

Physical – this area covers development in movement of the body. Movement includes gross motor skills (which means using the legs and arms) and fine motor skills (which means using the hands and fingers, for example, to pick things up).

Neurological and cognitive – neurological development refers to the growth and structural changes in the brain which lead to the development of cognition. The development of cognition involves the development of understanding, memory and concentration which supports learning, decision-making, problem-solving and other thought processes.

Communication including speech and language – this is learning to communicate with other people. It is part of a child’s cognitive development.

Social – this is about learning to live in a society with other people and learning to build relationships with others.

Emotional – this is the development of feelings but also of the child’s identity and self-image.

However, when looking at child development, it is important to think about it holistically. This means you need to consider all the areas described and not look at one area on its own.

What does Research tell Us?

Research has shown that early childhood experiences can have implications for mental and physical health. They can also impact well-being, development and achievement, lasting even into adulthood. Measures of health, educational achievement, the rate of child growth and development can act as indicators of positive and negative childhood experience. Children with more positive life experiences, for example, are more likely to be happy and healthy and meet development and academic targets.

childhood adverse experiences

What are the indicators of positive and negative childhood experiences?

Indicators of positive childhood experiences might include:

  • Good physical and mental health. This includes having no serious physical, mental illness or disability and having good general well-being and self-esteem.
  • A healthy lifestyle including healthy eating and exercise, and an understanding of the importance of taking care of their health.
  • Achieving their potential academically, gaining qualifications and having a positive attitude towards education. Being secure in relationships and having the ability to form positive relationships with others around them. This includes family relationships and relationships outside the family with teachers, peers etc.
  • Achieving developmental and growth milestones within the expected age range.
  • Having self-confidence, for example, confidence in approaching new and different situations.
  • Having the resilience to deal with setbacks and problems and having the ability to ‘bounce back’.
  • Being well cared for and loved by parents or guardians and family.

Indicators of negative childhood experiences might include:

  • Poor physical and mental health. This may include general poor health, serious illness or disability.
  • Poor lifestyle choices such as a poor diet and minimal exercise including a general lack of self-care.
  • A negative attitude towards education and poor attendance at school, probably resulting in a lack of educational achievement.
  • An inability to develop and maintain healthy relationships with family, peers and others such as teachers.
  • Failure to achieve expected growth and developmental milestones within the usually expected age ranges.
  • Lack of self-confidence and poor self-esteem, possibly indicated by a lack of social connections and poor self-care.
  • An inability to deal with difficult situations, potentially resulting in avoidance or challenging behaviour.
  • Signs of anxiety and stress such as nervousness and tiredness indicating lack of sleep.
  • A suspicion of authority, possibly resulting in deviant behaviour.
  • Poor family structure or family breakdown.
  • Evidence of domestic violence, neglect or abuse.
  • Sick or disabled parent meaning that the child becomes a carer.

It is important to appreciate that these are possible indicators of positive and negative childhood experience. Where they are present, they may indicate that a child’s experiences of life are positive or negative. 

Nature v Nurture

One of the ongoing debates related to child development is the nature-nurture debate. This is about whether a child’s genetic and biological makeup (nature) has more impact on a child’s behaviour, personality, health and achievements in life than the influence of external factors such as life experience, learning, family and social situation (nurture).

Some people believe that nature is the primary influence, the personality and potential of the child are largely fixed at birth. This could mean that childhood experience and upbringing have little effect. This would suggest that whether the childhood experience is negative or positive, the child will develop in the same way; the way the child will develop is largely fixed at birth.

There are others that believe that nurture is the primary influence, the child’s personality and potential development in response to childhood experience and upbringing. This means that positive childhood experience is very important for the development of the child and their future stability and success. The child’s development is influenced by their childhood experience and by the actions of parents and carers.

The majority of scientific research indicates that children are a product of both nature and nurture. This means that both their genetic make-up, their upbringing and childhood experiences are important in their growth, development, future health and achievement.

childhood adverse experiences

How important is the role of the family?

The family is very important in the development of a child. A child learns values and behaviour as well as developing their first social relationships within the family. The family should be a place of safety and security for the child. The child will learn so much if they are taught in the right way. This includes how things are communicated to them, what tone is used, your body language, when and where.

There can be all sorts of pressures that affect families. These could be financial pressure where there is not enough income to meet household bills; parents or other family members not getting on with one another; or the illness of a family member including physical or mental ill-health or substance misuse. All these examples can lead to stress for parents or family members which may make them anxious or irritable; to arguments between family members; or, in the worst case, violence and aggression between family members.  These pressures will have an adverse impact on a child.

Longer-term stress and anger within the family can affect the development, the physical, mental health and well-being of the child. Family discord can mean that children don’t get the support and attention they need. They may become stressed and anxious themselves, and research has shown that their development may be delayed. In some cases, physical health can also be very poor. Parents who are violent, abusive, take drugs or drink to excess do not make good role models for children and this behaviour may not help children learn acceptable social values and behaviour.

Although some of the adverse impacts may not be immediately visible they really are important to be aware of and understand.

Continual stress and conflict within the family can lead to:

  • Increased heartbeat and anxiety in children as young as six months
  • Disrupted early brain development in infants
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Conduct disorders (difficulty following rules and lack of respect)
  • A decline in school performance
  • Children not expressing their own emotions which can lead to an inability to express  emotion in later life
  • Low self-esteem and low self-confidence
  • Self-harm

Some of these problems may persist into adulthood and may damage a child’s ability to form positive relationships themselves.

Where can you get help?

Websites include:

-Beacon House, who are a team of chartered psychologists, psychotherapists and occupational therapists providing assessment and therapies for people, including for children and young people who are experiencing mental health difficulties. They  have a special interest in repairing the effects of trauma and provide a variety of free  resources at

-Research in Practice work with organisations to support work with children, families and young people. They have produced guides on supporting young people for practitioners.

-Various sites on building resilience can be found by searching online, including the  Public Health England report on building resilience in schools at data/file/355766/Review2_Resilience_in_schools_health_inequalities.pdf

-Various sites on mindfulness can be found by searching online, including the  Mindfulness in Schools Project at

You can also speak to your GP, a school counsellor and Charities like MIND

You will also find some resources at where there are some support guides and online courses that both your children and you as the adult can do at home at a pace that works for you.

With the right help, children can be supported to avoid some of the consequences arising from adverse childhood experiences and to build resilience for the future. The role of the family is to ensure children impacted by adverse childhood experiences get the right sort of support to build confidence and resilience to be able to cope.

When dealing with children, it is important to ensure that they feel valued, respected and empowered. This means that they feel appreciated for who they are, that they are treated well by others, and that they are given the power to make choices and decisions for themselves.

Remember, childhood experiences can have an adverse impact that may affect adulthood.

childhood adverse experiences

Here are some ways that you can work together with your child to support them

Remember, when speaking to your child do it in a way that you would want to be spoken to

Remember, if you as adults need to have a heated discussion make sure your child is not around

Remember, barking orders at a child will not command respect

Remember, to teach the value of money to your child from a young age

Remember to teach the value of Respect. Don’t expect respect if you don’t give it

Remember to set boundaries for your child but do explain why they are there

Remember, to teach your child Life Skills – Communication, Confidence, Mindfulness, Finance, Self-Confidence, Self-Acceptance

Remember, to teach your child the value of education

Remember, to teach your child the importance of hygiene and a good healthy diet

Remember, to teach your child the difference between a good and a bad relationship. From friends, peer groups, family.

Remember, to teach your child how to deal with things that do not go their way, deal with conflict and rejection.

Remember, to be their friend so they know they can come to you and speak to you about whatever it is they need to and that they can trust you to not be judgemental or critical.

Remember, to LOVE them unconditionally.

Further Support for Childhood Adverse Experiences

childhood adverse experiences pdf support guide

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To support your child in developing the Life Skills of Communicating with Confidence, I have 2 online courses that they can do at home with you, at a pace that works for them with no pressure or competition. Your child can repeat sections as often as they need.

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Public Speaking Expert & Trainer: SONAL DAVE

Communication and public speaking expert, Sonal, helps both children and adults communicate more effectively so that they have the tools and skills they need for better relationships and, indeed, for life.

Through her extensive experience working within the youth work, entertainment and business sectors, Sonal is uniquely placed to help bridge the communication gap between kids and adults.

Sonal’s exciting and engaging workshops and courses help people the world over reconnect and communicate so that they can overcome the barriers to success that have been holding them back.

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