“There are two sides to my childhood”: Positive childhood experiences in the face of adversity

By Kenvil Souza.

There are so many memories I have from my childhood. When I think back, I remember the pet chicken that I called “beauty” when I was in primary school. My mother let me keep her in spite of us living in a tiny flat. She would stay on the balcony, and I’d always feed her first thing when I came back from school. She kept me company when my mother was busy working full time trying to make ends meet after my dad passed away. His death had been especially devastating to me as a child, especially because I didn’t understand what death meant. I often waited by the phone for him to call me. It took years for me to even begin to come to terms with losing my favourite person.

I also remember my cousin, who was studying at university in a nearby city and would visit us on weekends. He would bring me comic books, tell me riddles, play games with me, tell me about photography, and he taught me how to solve the rubix cube. Another time, I remember facing abuse and how unsafe that made me feel and how watching movies about magic gave me comfort, because if I had superpowers, I could protect myself.

What I’m trying to say is that my childhood was littered with moments of joy and creativity and happy memories with people I loved along with dark moments where I felt threatened and lonely.

For the longest time, I thought about how the negative memories impacted me on a day-to-day basis. I believed that they were the most important moments that would shape my personality and entire life. This is why, when I decided to study a PhD in suicidal behaviour, I decided to study about the impact of adverse childhood experiences on suicidal behaviour. 

Adverse childhood experiences or ACEs were first coined by Felitti et al. [1] in a study that demonstrated their association with a range of health outcomes including suicide and self-harm. Although there is no clear consensus on the definition of ACEs, they are generally regarded as experiences occurring in childhood that may require significant adaptation including maltreatment and household dysfunction. Although specific ACEs had been previously associated with suicidal behaviour, Felitti et al. [1] argued that ACEs often tend to co-occur, and higher numbers of ACEs would indicate a higher risk of suicide and other health outcomes. This paper was highly influential and set the stage for a new area of research studying the impacts of adverse childhood experiences.

Although I understood the impacts of ACEs, I never considered the role of positive childhood experiences (PCEs) till a lecture I attended last year introduced me to the importance of positive psychology. The lecturer specifically discussed the broaden and build theory by Fredrickson [2]. According to this theory, an individual’s thought-action repertoire is a set of thoughts, tendencies and urges that may be acted upon and are often influenced by emotions. Negative emotions are linked to a narrowed range of thoughts and actions to help individuals in situations involving threats. In contrast, positive emotions in the short term expand this thought-action repertoire to enable a wider range of thoughts and actions including exploration and play and consequently build adaptive skills. In the long term, positive emotions can not only help us cope with stressors, but also increase the likelihood of experiencing positive emotions in the future. This was when I started thinking about how positive experiences such as emotional support from adults, enjoying community traditions, engaging with hobbies, and play may influence health risks, and whether they could be as impactful as ACEs on suicidal behaviour. Finally, I decided to study positive childhood experiences that may facilitate the development of adaptive skills alongside adverse childhood experiences on suicidal behaviour during my PhD.

Since of adversity and trauma can be very powerful experiences that have demonstrated to shape a lot of our future experiences, understanding and mitigating their effects better could be very useful in suicide prevention efforts. Thus, it is very important to understand the impact of adversity and trauma on suicidal behaviour. However, it is important that these efforts don’t imply that it is only the adverse experiences that count. When examining the very limited body of research regarding the effects of PCEs and ACEs on various mental health outcome measures, the results looked very promising. PCEs were found to be just as powerful in predicting the measured outcomes as ACEs. Although this has not been studied in relation to suicide to my knowledge, these results indicate that it would be very useful to investigate. We often study psychology through symptoms, behaviours, and treatments. To me, this has always indicated that the adverse experiences in my past somehow mattered more than my happy memories with my loved ones. I have come to believe that this is not the case anymore and I am looking forward to what my research will reveal. After all, our lives contain moments of laughter and tears and each of these moments matter. Like positive moments with beauty and my cousin helping me manage my grief, some experiences also may not perfectly fit into adverse or positive categories as they have aspects of both [3]. Although eradication of ACEs might not be possible, increasing PCEs might help alleviate their effects. In line with this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day theme “Creating Hope through Action”, I would like to reiterate how recognising the positive aspects of our life and understanding them better through research can give us hope.


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*Article featuring photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Kenvil Souza (@SouzaKenvil) is a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde. Email: