More than one thousand professionals from the family support continuum, from prevention and public health through restoration and child welfare gathered for the 2020 Strengthening Colorado Families and Communities Conference. And just as we would want for all Colorado families, the conference got off to a strong start with a keynote presentation from Dr. Angela Narayan, an assistant professor in the clinical child psychology doctoral program in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver. Narayan directs the Promoting Resilience in Offspring and Targeting Early Childhood Trajectories (PROTECT) Lab at the University examining the intergenerational transmission of risk and resilience from parents to children, with a particular focus on the perinatal period as a window of opportunity to buffer the transmission of trauma and promote resilience in both mothers and fathers, and their children. 


While Dr. Narayan’s talk reviewed her important research and findings, it was not meant to be technical, but instead advocated for practical uses of the findings to date on the importance of Benevolent Childhood Experiences (BCEs) as a Counterpoint to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in community mental health, pediatric and primary care screening and home visiting programs. After accounting for demographics and ACEs, this research has shown higher levels of BCEs significantly predict lower levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms. This research also found that when someone experienced ACEs and not BCEs, there was evidence of aggressive behavior, alcohol abuse and substance use. 

There is a decade of research demonstrating the impacts of ACEs, like experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect, witnessing violence in the home or community or having a family member attempt or die by suicide.  These traumatic events during childhood are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood. ACEs can also negatively impact education and job opportunities.(1) Having studied ACEs for many years, Narayan said she “always felt like we are missing half the story by not also assessing positive childhood experiences.” This BCEs research highlights “the pregnancy period as an opportune window to help buffer the transmission of trauma in families who are at risk for various types of adversity”, said Narayan. Narayan’s presentation highlighted ways the findings from research of the use of a BCEs Screening Tool can be leveraged to build resilience in children and families’ lives.  

The tool, developed in part by Narayan, features ten simple questions found to be culturally sensitive and applicable across a variety of demographic and socioeconomic audiences. If people working with children and families begin to incorporate the FREE BCEs screening tool, there is great potential to prevent child maltreatment and future chronic health problems, mental illness and substance misuse in adulthood, found to be present in the lives of adults who experienced a high number of adverse childhood experiences. 

“Obviously, we can’t change the experiences that adults had in their childhoods, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t ask about them, leverage them, bring them to the forefront as much as possible in order to help families in future generations.” Narayan bases much of her work on the perspective that “positive and negative experiences lay the foundation, but experiences that accumulate throughout someone’s life also continue to be very influential in terms of predicting the pathways that they are on and where they might deviate.” 

An example of practical implications for practitioners and clinicians given by Narayan was to leverage what BCEs have been identified as common. The positive experiences in childhood not in bold below are present for most people, so, if someone answers no, that can be an indicator of risk. On the flip side, four out of five people indicated that they did not have the experiences in bold. These things are less common, but are important because higher levels of BCEs impact adulthood. Narayan encourages practitioners and clinicians alike to ask themselves how we can specifically encourage these less common experiences in families to build resilience in future generations. 

When you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life:

  1. Did you have at least one caregiver with whom you felt safe?
  2. Did you have at least one good friend? 
  3. Did you have beliefs that gave you comfort?
  4. Did you like school?
  5. Did you have at least one teacher who cared about you?
  6. Did you have good neighbors?
  7. Was there an adult (not a parent/caregiver or the person from #1) who could provide you with support or advice?
  8. Did you have opportunities to have a good time?
  9. Did you like yourself or feel comfortable with yourself?
  10. Did you have a predictable home routine, like regular meals and a regular bedtime? (2)

While this tool was developed for professionals, there is certainly no harm in asking yourself these ten simple questions from the BCEs Screening Tool to reflect upon your childhood or the childhood of the children in your life. Ask yourself, can you create more Benevolent Childhood Experiences? 

All presentations at the Strengthening Families and Colorado Communities, and materials presented including the BCEs Screening Tool in English and Spanish will be available through the end of October 2020 on the conference website for attendees. Be sure to subscribe to the Illuminate Colorado Blog to be among the first to know when the 2022 conference date is announced. Hopefully, we will be able to convene the conference in person. 

(1) CDC

(2) Benevolent Childhood Experiences (BCEs) Scale, © Narayan, Rivera, Ghosh Ippen, & Lieberman, 2015© 

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