Benevolent Childhood Experiences

Back in my social worker days, I served as support group facilitator for adults who were abused as children. Participants ranged from early 20’s to late 60’s, each one haunted by neglect or abuse in their formative years, each one dealing with the after effects. We sat together week after week in a circle of folding chairs while people explored confusion, loss, despair, pain, vulnerability, fear, anger. We talked about what it took them to shape a life beyond early suffering. The stories told there  will stay with me forever.

We also explored stories of when they felt supported or understood.  One man remembered a coach who put a hand on his shoulder. The sensation of an adult’s hand touching him without malice was so unfamiliar that the man, as a boy, had trouble concentrating on his coach’s words. When he did, he realized the coach was saying something kind. This happened one time, and yet the man cherished the memory for decades. He said he could still summon the feeling of that hand on his shoulder. Other people talked about teachers who noticed something special about them.  They talked about a friend’s mother who would let them stay for supper or join in on family outings, about an aunt who would hug them, about neighbors who let them stick around, about grandparents who took them in when things got out of control at home.

These seem like small gestures, the sort of kindnesses adults should quite naturally extend to young people, although some in our group could recall only one or two such instances. Yet these memories sustained them for decades. Many people spoke of intentionally recalling these memories to shore up their spirits, break self-destructive habits, even keep from attempting suicide. That coach, that friend’s mother had no idea what light they’d lit in another life.

We know chronic stress or traumatic events in childhood have cumulative long-term effects on the mind and body.  The more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), the greater the damage is likely to be.  But that support group taught me more than I expected about Benevolent Childhood Experiences (BCEs). One group of researchers refers to these experiences as “angels in the nursery” serving as “protective factors that buffer adolescents, adults, and parents with histories of adversity.”

Here’s a glimpse of questions on the BCE scale currently in use.

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

I’d argue these questions are simultaneously too broad and too limited. Still, studies based on the scale show young people with caring adults in their lives are less likely to suffer the physical and mental health ravages of ACEs. In fact, “favorable childhood experiences may counteract long-term effects of childhood adversity.

Perhaps a scale of beneficial experiences helps to reinforce that each child needs and deserves consistent, committed, caring adults in their lives. It can help us remember to BE that benevolent person to children in our lives, even those we might know only briefly.  And it helps to remind us of benevolent adults in our own formative years.

Who in your childhood and teen years made you feel safe, worthy, understood?

8 thoughts on “Benevolent Childhood Experiences

  1. Beautiful, Laura! Thank you. The few kindnesses I experienced as a child with a seriously abusive family were highly meaningful. I held them close, like talismans in my pocket, fingering them and praying for a life in which they were prominent, not just keepsakes. One of my top Benevolent Experiences was a couple of lengthy hugs from a man named Jay, who had no other agenda. I clearly remember the time we stood in the doorway of the house overlooking a rocky New Hampshire sore. I felt the warmth Jay’s hug like that of the sun that streamed in through the glass storm door. It enveloped me. He swayed us gently, made humming sounds of enjoyment. It was “just a hug,” but still means so much to me.

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  2. Reading posts like this one remind me how fortunate I am to have been raised in a loving, non-abusive family. My parents weren’t perfect, but I knew that they loved me, and so did my paternal grandmother, who also lived with us. I am able to answer yes to nearly all of the questions on the BCE scale you shared above.

    Now that I have my own children, let me be mindful to be the one who provides them with benevolent childhood experiences, as well as their friends and peers, when it’s within my ability to do so.

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  3. What a moving post. I stared at the picture of the lonely little child at the bottom of those huge stairs after I read it and thought about those questions. I don’t visit my childhood very often but, yes, I did have my Nan to hide behind from time to time. And I did believe in myself. And I did like school. And I made it through! Here, I am, an adult with both grown children and a little boy, and my drive to be the best mother to them that I can is driven my heartbreaks as a child.
    Very thought provoking. Thanks Laura 😊

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  4. I’m wondering what you’re experience in someone who’s response to all but about 3 of those is a resounding no. My dad was a Pentecostal preacher and I certainly hold to respecting belief, but they were fundamentalists. They controlled my every move (and to counter that homeschooling has anything to do with this, did so while I was in public school….. I just wasn’t allowed to do anything but go to school and come home…… and was pulled out of class for things my parents didn’t believe in). I don’t remember having any teacher that ever showed me kindness though. I always felt like the odd outsider they got sick of dealing with. When my sisters husband started molesting me, no one paid attention. I felt more punished for my reactions and worked that much harder to hide them. I had neighbors but again, I was the weird outsider girl. I wonder what damage that has done because I’m a nervous wreck that can’t trust anyone. I don’t let anyone closer than an arms length so I become somewhat anti-social. I know my parents hostility to anything outside their religion is partly for why I didn’t have any benevolence in my life, but the rural school district I attended, full of angry teachers, didn’t seem to help. I really think it has closed me off as an adult, which I guess is somewhat sad.

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    • Cheryl, my heart hurts for all the misery you endured growing up. Your suffering clearly wasn’t softened by kindness at school, in the neighborhood, or in your extended family. I hope you recognize what strength and spirit it took for you to survive. The responses you mention (hypervigilance, keeping people away, closing off) were useful to the girl you were, creating as much safety as she could build around herself. I hope you have begun talking with a therapist and looking into somatic treatment. You deserve to have a life full of benevolence, even if it wasn’t given to you in childhood.

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