The conversation on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is still new, but researchers and medical professionals are beginning to understand the connection between adverse childhood experiences and adult health problems. Researchers have found a relationship between childhood abuse or family dysfunction and the leading causes of death in adulthood, including cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and lung disease, along with many common health issues like depression, autoimmune diseases, and inflammation. All of this may seem scary, but there is hope for those who have experienced ACEs and are now struggling with their adult health, and there is hope for those who are currently raising children and trying to interrupt any ACEs in their lives.
This YouTube video provides a background to ACEs research.
Here are seven things you should know about ACEs:
1 | ACEs exist
Many people do not give ACEs credit for causing adult health issues. They say, “We all had a hard childhood.” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “You just gotta toughen up.” Some of this is true. Researchers have found 64 percent of people report at least a score of one on the ACE Survey. Most of us did experience some kind of trauma or unpredictable chronic stress as children. Some of us had very little and some of us had a lot. These childhood events can have a major effect on us and most children do not have the ability to deal with the chronic stress of ACEs. ACEs do not make a child stronger, they break them down.
Research has shown that people who have experienced ACEs are more likely to suffer from health conditions, participate in harmful behaviors, have relationship problems, and struggle with emotions and handling stress.
Our ability to overcome ACEs depends on our resiliency. Some of us were able to work through our trauma and move forward. Others experienced chronic stress while their brains were developing or held onto the stress, which later manifested itself into autoimmune diseases, depression, fibromyalgia, heart disease, or cancer.
We may not even realize we have experienced ACEs, or what effect they have on our health, our social interactions, and our parenting. Diseases and health conditions can arise for a number of reasons, but having experienced an ACE increases the likelihood. When we develop resiliency, we are better able to overcome our past. Once we recognize our hurt, we can understand our position and work toward healing.
2 | ACEs are scored
Researchers found 10 main areas of chronic, toxic stress that affects children. The survey is available online here. The areas include physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, abandonment, parental drug and alcohol addiction, parental incarceration, parental mental illness, seeing a parent being abused, or needs not being taken care of. Knowing the most important stressors for our children can help us to avoid them as we parent. Knowing our own ACE score can allow us the first step in overcoming our past. When you know your own ACE score, you are better equipped to speak with a medical professional about the impact your childhood is having on your health.
3 | You are not alone
Researchers have found that 64 percent of adults have had at least a score of one on the ACE survey. Of those, 87 percent of those had experienced two or more. The higher the ACE score, the more likely the adult was to have health problems like heart disease, depression, cancer, or autoimmune diseases. Many adults go through life with these illnesses and do not even realize the effect their childhood had on their adult health.
4 | ACEs effected a child’s developing brain
Chronic, unpredictable stress during childhood can cause serious changes to a child or teenager’s developing brain. These biophysical changes can cause inflammation of the brain and health issues as an adult. Damage is done at the cellular level to the developing brain, causing the cells to age and leaving us prone to diseases later in life.
Not only this, but when a young child or teenager is experiencing chronic stress, they are in a constant state of fight-or-flight, releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This causes us to have an unhealthy response to stress hormones when we do experience them. Chronic stress causes us to not be able to regulate our stress hormones, which brings on inflammation. Basically, we are on constant red-alert. This YouTube video shows the effects of chronic stress on the brain.
When stress is healthier for children, they develop the ability to handle stressful situations. When stress is chronic or unpredictable, children are unable to cope effectively with the release of stress hormones. The release of these hormones can actually shrink the developing brain’s hippocampus, further causing trouble for managing stress and processing emotion. What happens to our brains while they are developing is the foundation for the rest of our lives.
5 | We aren’t talking about all stress
There is a difference between the stress that causes an ACE and the regular stress of growing up and it’s important to make the distinction. Chronic, toxic, unpredictable stress includes things like abuse, seeing a loved one being abused, being bullied, not feeling loved, being hurt by loved ones, etc. The regular stress of growing up includes studying for a test, worrying when homework is forgotten, or dealing with the reasonable consequences for not doing chores or talking-back.
Parents should not shield their children from small stressors as they grow. These help the child develop a healthy understanding that the quality of their life depends on their choices, builds character and resilience, and helps them understand how to handle stress hormones effectively. On the other hand, parents do need to be there to protect children from stressors like psychological, physical, or sexual abuse.
6 | This is not about blaming your parents
Many parents parent the way they were raised, or are products of the environment in which they were raised. When our own parents were raised with chronic stress or trauma, it’s hard to expect them to parent any differently. The important part is to give them grace and to use this knowledge to grow yourself and break the generational trauma. Working through your own childhood will help you to overcome your own ACEs and work toward better health and parenting.
7 | ACEs do not define you or your parenting
A high ACE score does not mean you are doomed to be a bad parent or experience health problems. Just as we can heal a pulled muscle, we can also heal a traumatized brain. Taking steps to recognize past hurt and work through the pain can work wonders on our health. This along with a healthy diet, exercise, and medical and therapeutic help can help us overcome our ACEs. We are able to overcome our past hurts and not pass those along to our children. By allowing them to experience an appropriate amount of good stress, consulting with them and walking them through hardships, providing love, empathy, and loving limits, we can stop the generational spread of ACEs and protect our children’s developing brains.