Adverse childhood experiences – resilience and protective factors

Thinking about the lives of children who live in families where there is mental illness is a key focus of Our Time. Parental Mental Illness is one of the 10 ACEs but it is rarely present in children and young people’s mental health policy and practice. We believe that supporting the whole family is the best way to help the children deal with this adversity.

A focus on resilience is a good starting point because it recognises that despite early adversity some children ‘beat the odds’ and thrive. We need to understand what enables this to happen.

Research into resilience finds that family factors, including the quality of attachment between mother and child and father and child, play an important role. The Meisels & Shonkoff (2000) review of the literature on resilience and early family dynamics, highlighted particularly the fundamental role of maternal attachment in successful human development.

A balanced attitude to discipline and parental oversight has also been identified as a protective factor in a child’s upbringing. Outside of the home environment, a child’s involvement in quality childcare can have a protective effect, especially for economically disadvantaged children [1]. Sociability and relationships with friends are also supporting factors for at-risk children [2]. Participating in community social groups and a sense of belonging to a community [3], for example, fathers of at-risk youth who participated in community activities, were found to be associated with a lower criminal involvement of these youth in later life [4].

A recent study in New Zeland investigates why some children who might be considered at risk are found to have had no adverse childhood experiences by age 4.

The research used a predictive risk model to identify children who are at the highest risk of being exposed to Adversities of Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by 54 months. Children are classified as ‘beating the odds’ if they are in the highest 20% risk group based on the predictive risk model, but by age 54 months have not experienced a single ACE.

The study identified several factors that appear to be protective for children at high risk and found three fundamental elements of support:

  • mother-partner factors
  • parental health and wellness
  • family finances

Without intervention, 70% of children affected by parental mental illness are predicted to suffer from mental illness themselves [6].

However, in families where there are two parents and one of them is mentally well, this statistic is halved to 35%. A child brought up in a supportive environment, regardless of the presence of mental illness, where one parent who is well is able to support the other and they can pull together, significantly reduces the risk.

It is why, with this in mind, Our Time works with the whole family building the support structures both within and around the family. We aim to maximise the possibility that they can work together to deal with the challenges and foster positive relationships which will enable the children to ‘beat the odds’.

We are asking  the government to focus policy and provision around the family, giving them the tools and the knowledge to thrive despite adversity.


  1. Meisels & Shonkoff, 2000; Phillips & Shonkoff, 2000
  2. Benard, 2004; Conger, Cui, Bryant & Elder Jr, 2000
  3. Sampson, Raudenbush & Earls, 1997; Wilson, 2003
  4. Mahoney & Magnusson, 2001
  5. Protective factors of children and families at highest risk of adverse childhood experiences:  An analysis of children and families in the Growing up in New Zealand
  6. Rubovits, C. (1996). Project CHILD: an intervention programme for psychotic mothers and their children. In Gopfert, J.Webster & MV Seeman (eds) Parental Psychiatric Disorder (2nd edition pp 161-172) New York: Cambridge University Press