Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are negative occurrences in a child’s life that can have a long-lasting impact on health and well-being. They can disrupt neurodevelopment, causing social, emotional, and cognitive impairment. ACEs can also lead to medical and mental health difficulties, including early death. It’s not uncommon to experience ACEs in childhood, so in this article, we discuss what ACEs are and how to best overcome them.
What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are characterized as potentially traumatic events that happen in childhood, up until the age of 18. They include a range of difficult situations that a child may witness or experience while growing up. The adverse experiences include:
- Child emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Child emotional or physical neglect
- Parental separation or divorce
- Mentally ill, depressed or suicidal family member
- Drug dependent or alcoholic family member
- Domestic violence toward the mother
- Loss of a parent to death or abandonment, including abandonment by divorce
- Incarceration of a family member
- Medical illness or death of a family member
- Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, fires, or tornadoes
- Community violence
- Economic hardship in the family
The toxic stress from ACEs can physically alter a child’s brain development and affect the body’s response to stress. Over time when a child experiences multiple ACEs, the excessive stress can affect the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. This can have a life-long impact on how we function, including attention, behavior, decision-making, and the ability to manage stress.
What Are the Consequences of ACEs?
ACEs can have a significant impact on both the mental health and physical well-being of someone as they age. From 1995 to 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, California conducted the first ACE study. At that time, researchers asked 17,300 adults about childhood experiences, including:
- Emotional, physical and sexual abuse
- Parental neglect
- Challenges of parental separation
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Mental health issues
Almost two-thirds of the study participants indicated at least one ACE, and more than 20% reported three or more. Researchers identified a link between adverse experiences in childhood and an increased likelihood of negative behavioral and health outcomes later in life, such as depression, substance abuse, suicide, heart disease, and diabetes.
Other consequences linked to ACEs include poor performance in school, development of high-risk health behaviors, and unemployment. These typically occur when someone has experienced several ACEs, and the greater the number of ACEs, the greater the likelihood for negative outcomes.
The Cycle of ACEs
The cycle of ACEs is usually viewed as intergenerational, meaning it’s passed from one generation to the next. For example, children who experience physical abuse when growing up are more likely to abuse or neglect their own children. Abuse or neglect can also be the result of a lack of healthier parenting skills or frustration.
Here are some of the common occurrences that can lead to abuse or neglect by a parent and perpetuate the cycle of ACEs:
- History of childhood abuse
- Financial distress
- Marital or relationship difficulties
- Lack of problem-solving skills
- Inadequate healthy social support networks
- Lack of understanding about child development
- Substance abuse, including alcohol
- Mental health issues
How Do We Break the Cycle?
Lessening the long-term consequences of ACEs and breaking their intergenerational cycle is possible. Cultivating greater resilience—the ability to overcome adversity—is a recommended strategy for reducing the impact of ACEs and contributing to a healthier adult life. Other techniques like protective factors that create strong family bonds are also beneficial. Providing children with safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and communities helps reduce the negative impact of ACEs and also supports improved mental health and medical outcomes in adulthood.
There are many ways to foster a child’s resilience and help minimize the impact of ACEs. Here are some of the ways that support can be offered:
- Increased caregiver knowledge and understanding of positive parenting skills
- Establishing close relationships with competent caregivers or other caring adults
- Building communities that support health and development
- Improving parental resilience, including problem-solving skills and emotional self-regulation abilities
- Creating greater social connections
It’s important for caregivers to build protective relationships for children that allow them to remain strong despite severe adversity. This helps to neutralize the impact of ACEs. By building resilience and maintaining a strong protective network, children can do well regardless of extreme hardships.
If you’ve been impacted by ACEs and wonder how they’re affecting your life, including your ability to manage life’s challenges or your confidence in your parenting skills, please contact us. We can help. No matter your experiences, there’s always hope for more positive outcomes and greater resilience.