Participating in childhood sports protects mental health of traumatized children, finds study

Participating in childhood sports protects mental health of traumatized children, finds study

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events which can significantly impact the development trajectory of children and adolescents. ACEs include physical or sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing or being involved in domestic violence, and death or incarceration of a parent. Recent research showed that 34 million American children (46.3 percent) aged between 0 and 17 years had at least one ACE, while nearly 22 percent had two or more ACEs.

ACEs contribute to high levels of toxic stress which can impair physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. The prolonged negative impacts of childhood trauma can develop into serious mental illnesses. A major study conducted by Public Health Wales (PWH), a national public health agency, and Bangor University, Wales, sought to investigate the protective factors which could lower the risk of mental illnesses in people with troubled childhoods.

People with four or more ACEs had a four-time higher likelihood of being in treatment for current mental illnesses and a 10-time higher likelihood of self-harm or suicidal ideation than people without ACEs. Out of all childhood activities measured, only regular participation in sports had a protective effect against mental illnesses. “Among those with four or more ACEs, the adjusted proportion reporting current mental illness fell from 25 percent of those who did not regularly participate in childhood sports to 19 percent in those who did,” the report, published in January 2018, noted.

High childhood resilience significantly lowers mental illness

The study also found that individuals with a greater number of childhood resilience resources, including access to a trusted adult, supportive friends and community participation, significantly lowered the risk of developing mental illnesses, even in those with high levels of ACEs. For individuals with four or more ACEs and high childhood resilience, the adjusted proportion reported:

  • Lifetime mental illness at 41 percent (low childhood resilience: 60 percent)
  • Current mental illness at 4 percent (low childhood resilience: 29 percent)
  • Self-harm/suicide ideation at 17 percent (low childhood resilience: 39 percent)

Participation in sports, both in childhood and adulthood, was found to further boost mental health. The study was unable to establish if participation in sports built greater resilience among children, or if children with greater resilience were more inclined to participate in sports. However, it confirmed past research which showed that participation in school sports during adolescence led to significantly lower depressive symptoms and perceived stress, and higher self-rated mental health in early adulthood.

The findings of the study suggested that increased sports participation and physical recreation should be further explored as a means of developing resilience and protecting mental health. Although the physical benefits of engagement in sports have received sufficient attention, additional factors like “its impact on friendship opportunities, benefits to mental health, access to role models and the other aspects of resilience” also need to be considered.

Managing traumatic stress and PTSD in adolescents

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), children’s traumatic stress responses can lead to long-lasting problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Teens with PTSD may exhibit anti-social tendencies, avoid school, or adopt reckless habits like unrestrained sexual activity, self-harm, bingeing and purging. Many even attempt suicide. The most common and unhealthiest coping mechanism is misuse of alcohol or drugs.

According to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication – Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), an estimated 5 percent American adolescents aged 13-18 had a lifetime prevalence of PTSD. Other research showed that among traumatized children and teens, 3-15 percent girls and 1-6 percent boys developed PTSD, but rates could be higher for certain types of trauma survivors. The most effective approach for treating children is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Other treatment interventions include psychological first aid (PFA), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and play therapy.

As the leading therapeutic boarding schools for troubled teens, White River Academy helps teenage boys aged between 12 and 17, recover from mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress in children. Call our 24/7 helpline number or chat online with one of our experts to know about the best treatment for PTSD in teens.

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