Shannon Bussnick, LSW
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) are more common than society often acknowledges.
And while confronting difficult topics and social issues is no easy task, it’s necessary we do so for the well-being of today’s youth and to change the course for future generations.
Oftentimes, when we say aloud (or hear others say) what we believe to be as ‘harmless’ remarks, such as, “My childhood wasn’t as bad as hers,” “They did the best they could…,” or even, “I deserved it,” we justify the incidences of adverse childhood experiences everywhere and minimize how such experiences can vastly affect one’s life circumstances and overall health and well-being.
Here we’ll be looking at the defining characteristics of adverse childhood experiences, discussing preventative measures which can be implemented on a micro and macro level, and sharing effective coping techniques to manage the emotional impact of those affected.
Defining Adverse Childhood Experiences
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Adverse childhood experiences, or ACE’s, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years).”
Current data suggests that about 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states have experienced at least one ACE during their early upbringing and about 1 in 6 adults reported experiencing 4 or more ACE’s during these formative years.
While there are many events that can be traumatic for a young person, examples of adverse experiences may include:
- Having an experience of, or being exposed to: violence, abuse or neglect
- Learning of, or witnessing, a family members’ attempt or death by suicide
- Growing up in an environment which lacks stability, security, and healthy behavior modeling (may include substance use problems, mental health problems, or instability due to parental conflict or legal issues).
Understanding the Effects
There can be several long-lasting negative effects stemming from adverse childhood experiences which can impact one’s health, well-being, and overall life circumstances.
Long-term effects may include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Limited education and job opportunities (or a lack thereof)
- Difficulty forming and maintaining stable relationships
- Mental health and/or substance use problems
- Risk of injury and/or sexually transmitted diseases
- Maternal and child health problems (teen pregnancy, pregnancy complications, risk of fetal stillbirth)
- An increase in chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease
- Long-term toxic stress which may be passed down to future offspring
Prevention of Adverse Childhood Experiences
As seen above, children who grow up in an environment where they experience adverse childhood experiences are more at risk for developing mental health problems, substance use problems, and chronic health problems.
In order to then implement appropriate and successful preventative measures for ACE’s, we must identify risk and protective factors for children and their families.
Risk factors for ACE’s include:
- Children who lack a secure attachment to their caregiver which may decrease trust and feelings of safety
- Children who lack positive role models or peer support
- Children who engage in sexual activity early or delinquent activity
- Families experiencing challenges related to caring for a child with a disability
- Families who lack understanding or have limited education about a child’s needs
- Families with low-income, limited education, or who possess a lack of resources
- Families who use forms of corporal punishment to discipline children
- Family with caregivers who have been abused or neglected in their lifetime
- Families who do not provide adequate safety monitoring of children
- Families isolated from the community or who lack support from other parents and extended family
- Families with attitudes and beliefs accepting of violence, aggression, neglect, or abuse
Protective factors for ACE’s include:
- Children who have positive peer relationships
- Children who have a positive connection to school and with education
- Children who have positive role models in other areas of their life
- Families who have stable and secure relationship with their children
- Families who meet the physical and emotional needs of their children
- Families where caregivers have a stable course of employment
- Families where caregivers have college degrees or higher
- Families who have strong support networks in their community
- Families who engage in appropriate safety monitoring of their children and work through problems peacefully
- Families who encourage the development of a positive value system
What We Can Do
To advocate for children and to protect their health and well-being, we need to look how to step in early—whether on a micro level: working closely with at-risk families in the community to prevent ACE’s, or on a macro level: achieving government support for the family system on a state and national level from the start (especially in areas where systematic racism, poverty, and other social determinants of health show inequity to other locations).
There are several ways we can work to implement preventative measures on a micro and macro level:
- Strengthen economic support to families
- Promote social values which protect the family system
- Ensure access to education, child-care, and family engagement activities
- Teach a wide-range of life skills to both children and caretakers
- Connect youth with positive role models and mentoring services
- Spread awareness about ACE’s and encourage community responsibility
- Engage in early detection of at-risk youth and families and engage in early intervention practices of trauma-exposed children (recognizing the various signs and symptoms of trauma responses) to treat those affected
Effective Coping Techniques to Manage the Emotional Impact
Learning ways to manage the emotional impact of adverse childhood experiences is vital for symptom management and future healing of those affected.
Here are some effective coping strategies and healing modalities that are proven to be helpful:
- Connecting with someone you trust and who supports you
- Sending time outdoors in nature, engaging in activities you enjoy
- Journaling and other forms of creative expression
- Allowing yourself permission to grieve
- Creating a trauma narrative (can be done with the help of an adult or mental health professional)
- Learning how to set physical and emotional boundaries when appropriate
- Identifying beliefs that are conducive to the healing process and re-framing beliefs which are harmful
- Practicing mindfulness (breath-work, grounding exercises, and guided imagery)
- Engaging in specialized trauma-focused treatments such as, cognitive behavioral therapy, tapping work or psychological acupuncture with a mental health professional
While it’s certainly possible to learn how to manage the symptoms of adverse childhood experiences by oneself, there are many benefits to seeking guidance from a mental health professional or other trusted party. Oftentimes, there are many layers to these experiences and having a strong support system to navigate them is important. Remember, help is available today.
If you or someone close to you is in crisis or may be in danger please do not hesitate to reach out for help.
- Emergency: Call 911 immediately
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433)
- Crisis Text Line: Text “DESERVE” to 741-741
- Self-Harm Hotline: 1-800-DONTCUT (1-800-366-8288)
- American Association of Poison Control Centers: 1-800-222-1222
- National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependency Hope Line: 1-800-622-2255
- GLBT Hotline: 1-888-843-4564
American Psychological Association. (2008). Children and trauma: Update for mental health professionals. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/children-trauma-update
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 6). Preventing adverse childhood experiences |violence prevention|injury Center|CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/index.html
Stines, S. (2018, March 27). 7 ways to help a child heal from trauma. GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/7-ways-to-help-child-heal-from-trauma-0327185