Strong Social Networks May Mitigate the Effects of Childhood Adversity

girls hugging
girls hugging
These findings support initiatives targeted at reducing the effect of negative early childhood experiences on psychopathology.

Although negative childhood events can have an adverse effect on psychopathology, good social support networks can mitigate these effects and reduce the negative mental health effects of such experiences, according to the results of a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Social support networks can help provide stability to individuals, enhance self-worth, be engaging, and provide a sense of satisfaction with life in general. When stress occurs, people with strong support networks can better cope with adversity. Some have suggested that relationships with others can reduce the effect of trauma and its symptoms.

Margaret McLafferty, PhD candidate, of Ulster University, Northern Ireland, and colleagues obtained data from the Northern Ireland Study of Health and Stress (NISHS), which was conducted as part of the World Mental Health Survey Initiative. A total of 1986 responses were included in the analysis.

Participants who had experienced childhood adversity or trauma had an increased risk for psychological problems, particularly participants who had received high levels of mistreatment; however, this was partially mediated by strong supportive networks, including family and friend support and family harmony. Nonetheless, those who had experienced negative events were less likely to have good social networks. The investigators found that female participants were more likely to have mood or anxiety disorders and male participants were more likely to have substance abuse disorders. 

Interestingly, increased family support was associated with lower levels of anxiety disorders, and the support of friends was associated with lower levels of mood disorders. Family harmony played an important role in reducing the incidence of all mental health disorders. 

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Individuals with high levels of childhood adversity had decreased family and friend support, which suggests that high levels of childhood adversities harm the ability to form social networks. Those with medium levels of adversity had lower levels of family harmony, indicating the involvement of parental maladjustment as the cause of the adversity itself.

The authors suggested that these findings support initiatives targeted at reducing the effect of negative early childhood experiences on psychopathology. They proposed implementing early intervention programs that attempt to develop strong social networks both within the family and beyond.


McLafferty M, O’Neill S, Armour C, Murphy S, Bunting B. The mediating role of various types of social networks on psychopathology following adverse childhood experiences. J Affect Disord. 2018. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2018.06.020