Guest Blog: When bad things happen to good kids: How adversity affects child development

As we launch the first of our guest blogger series, we welcome Dr. Carryl P. Navalta,  Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.  We welcome Dr. Navalta’s insight.  If you are interested in becoming a guest blogger for, please contact us.

When bad things happen to good kids: How adversity affects child development

On the surface, we typically believe that all we need to do for our children is to give them food to eat, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs. Also, as a backdrop to these necessities, we’re supposed to provide them with emotional support and guidance as they navigate the transitions from childhood to adolescence, and ultimately to adulthood. In addition, our children go to school along this developmental path where we expect them to get a quality education from well-meaning and nurturing teachers with the ‘end game’ being a good job after high school graduation, or better yet, a chance to attend college that can lead them to a great job or even a career. If our children develop social skills, make and keep friends, and have one or more ‘romantic’ relationships along the way, those experiences would be ‘icing on the cake’. In all, if everything turns out well, we would all agree that this outcome is good. Now the bad.

Scientific research has reached a point where most experts agree that adversity during childhood can have very negative and far-reaching effects on child development. These types of bad experiences have been labeled with various names, such as adverse childhood experiences (“ACE’s”), complex trauma, polyvictimization, and toxic stress to name a few. Regardless of the term, we now know that our children’s development can take a very ‘wrong turn’ if they are exposed to a number of these adversities, which can happen at home (such child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, impaired caregivers), at school (such as bullying), and in the community (such as physical violence, shootings, terrorism). The consequences of these experiences have been documented most comprehensively by a landmark set of studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

In a nutshell, here’s what the investigators have shown. First, exposure to a number of these adversities (usually four or more) increases the chances that children will develop social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Then, if these problems do occur, that can lead them to have unhealthy behaviors, such as overeating, poor exercise, experimentation with alcohol and drugs, and hanging out with ‘bad kids’. Once these actions become habit, it’s not too surprising that the children grow up and have great risk for developing a number of physical, mental, and social problems, such as heart disease, depression and anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, and criminal behavior. The worst of it is that once these problems arise, the chance of dying early becomes a reality – an outcome that’s as bad as it can get.

So, what can parents and other important adults in our children’s lives do? The answer is simple, but hard to do in practice. Each stage of our children’s lives needs to be seen as an ‘opportunity’ or ‘window’ to help prevent them from entering and going down this ‘deadly’ road. One example of this type of prevention is to identify those kids who are at risk of developing drug or alcohol problems. Luckily, a simple and scientifically-proven screening procedure is now available, Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT). In fact, here in Massachusetts, the Children’s Mental Health Campaign has a mission to equip schools with the staffing and expertise needed to provide SBIRT in all schools throughout the Commonwealth!

The time has come to recognize that we have the responsibility to help and support our children not only when things are good, but also when bad things happen. Their lives can literally be at stake.

Carryl P. Navalta, Ph.D.
Father of two teenage girls

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
Boston University School of Medicine

Research Associate
Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute

For a more comprehensive review and description of the effects of childhood adversities on development, visit

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