What are adverse childhood experiences The term “Adverse Childhood Experiences” comes from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Study conducted in 1995-1997. It originally began in an obesity clinic. As the study grew, it started to uncover links between childhood trauma, chronic disease, and mental health issues.

It became the largest body of research to categorize 10 types of childhood trauma and understand the long-term impacts on health (see categories below). Recent research has gone on to include new focuses such as racism, bullying, community crime, foster care, homelessness, and immigration.

The 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences are:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Alcohol or drug abused by a parent
  • Mentally ill parent
  • Divorce
  • Incarceration of parent
  • Childhood Domestic Violence

What is the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on a child’s health and well-being?

ACEs can impact all areas of a child’s life, leading to poor physical, mental, and behavioral outcomes into adulthood. Additionally, trauma from ACEs can also cause gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological symptoms.

The stress caused by ACEs can cause chemical disruptions in the brain, impeding proper development. When a child lives in a constant state of fight or flight, the regular release of adrenaline and cortisol build up into toxic stress. This process redirects more resources to the survival part of the brain. Furthermore, according to studies conducted by the CDC-Permanente Study, ACEs can even damage a child’s DNA and shorten their lifespan.

Look at the areas of adulthood ACEs can impact:

Multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the ACE Score

ACEs studies utilize ACE scoring, finding that the higher someone’s ACE score, the more types of childhood adversity they experienced. Consequently, this increases the likelihood of more negative impacts in physical and mental behavior and health.

ACE Studies discover that not only do these ACEs impact a life, but they often co-occur – where there’s one adversity, there’s often more. According to researcher Jeff Edleson, more than 50% of those who experience an ACE also experience 5 or more other adversities

Dr. Daniel Sumrok is a nationally recognized leader in the field of addiction science and addiction medicine, board certified in family medicine and addictions and the 2020-2022 president of the Tennessee Society of Addiction Medicine. Additionally, he also is very interested in ACEs. In one of his blogs, he mentions some eye-opening statistics regarding the findings of the ACE study:

  • Most people (64%) have at least one ACE
  • 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4
  • Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer
  • ACEs increase the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent

Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) free of stigma

Adverse Childhood Experiences have massive consequences for society, but are often hidden from view. For instance, they are not understood by those who experience them. They are often not understood by parents, or even misunderstood by the educational and medical systems. Adults may not not make the connections to the adversities having a direct impact on their lives or may feel ashamed that they cannot simply move past or “get over” the feelings they still have.

Fortunately, research shows talking about it is one of the most effective ways to overcome the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Dr. Shanta Dube, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Georgia State University was a member of the original team behind the CDC Kaiser-Permanente ACE study.  While reviewing questionnaires, Dr. Dube came across many participants thanking the study team for the questions. One said, “I thought I would die never having told anyone about my childhood.”

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Awareness and THE ONE

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician known for her work related to childhood trauma, and former California first surgeon general, is a vocal advocate for the awareness of ACEs. She learned about the ACE Study in 2008:

“I was absolutely shocked that I had never heard about it and that as a doctor I was never trained on it…Ultimately, every pediatrician in America needs to be screening for ACEs….For me it’s no different than laying a stethoscope on a patient’s chest.”

She also emphasizes the importance of a caring adult who can at a critical time to help foster resiliency in a child impacted by adversity. As Dr Burke Harris states, “One of the key ingredients for keeping the body’s stress response out of the toxic stress zone is the presence of a healthy buffering caregiver.”

ACEs have a huge impact on society and on individuals. Awareness and education of ACEs is critical. If we have greater awareness, better support systems can be built in the medical, educational, and social fields. This will ensure that children facing adversity can cope more successfully.

Through awareness, an adult can understand how to help a child facing adversity, or an adult still grappling with adverse childhood experiences can find the help and knowledge they need to rebuild their own path.

One of the key premises of our work here at CDVA centers around the buffering, healing, transformative effects of THE ONE – a caring adult who steps in at a critical time to help foster the resiliency of a child impacted by adversity. Learn more about the Change A Life program, which in 50 minutes shows you how to be THE ONE for an at-risk child.