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Idaho pediatricians ask about parents' childhoods to improve their kids' lives

A woman and a boy around a campfire in winter in the forest fry dumplings on skewers.
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Recent research has found having a lot of positive childhood experiences, even if kids also experience trauma, can greatly improve mental health.

Dr. R.J. Gillespie — a pediatrician at the Children's Clinic in Portland, Oregon — is working with providers in Idaho on the effects of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which can have long term impacts on people's health.

He said screening parents for ACEs puts another prevention tool in the pocket of pediatricians.

"We're having providers talk to parents about their own individual histories, both in terms of adverse childhood experiences and in terms of positive childhood experiences," said Gillespie, "to see how we can both prevent the negative and promote and ensure that the positive experiences happen for the kids in their generation."

Gillespie said when children experience too many ACEs, it can lead to long-term mental health challenges — such as depression — and can also affect the body.

Research has found ACEs can increase the risk of strokes and heart attacks at an early age.

Gillespie said asking parents about their experiences can feel unnatural to pediatricians. So part of the work he's doing is helping providers understand that ACEs and positive experiences impact children's health.

"Our training really taught us that the kids are our patients," Gillespie said. "And I think that when it comes to things like understanding trauma, it sounds like something that should be done by a mental health provider. So, there's definitely interest but I think there's some skill development that we're trying to help promote."

Gillespie noted that more research is delving into the impact of positive childhood experiences, adding recent findings show that a lot of positive experiences could outweigh negative ones.

"How do we figure out how to make families more resilient and give them good coping strategies and good self-care strategies and try to promote those positive experiences as well," Gillespie said. "Knowing that they're going to be extremely powerful in terms of predicting healthy outcomes for patients and for families?"