Some of the most significant predictors of adolescent and adult substance abuse, mental illness, learning difficulties and other serious social problems are ACEs—Adverse Childhood Experiences.
This is a topic we’re passionate about for many reasons. Helping kids thrive should matter to everyone. Also, by addressing ACEs, we can help prevent many future family, community and social problems.
What are ACEs?
ACEs, adverse childhood experiences, are those things that happen to a child or in a child’s home environment that can have a negative effect on their cognitive, social, emotional and/or physical development.
There are 10 defined ACEs that are shown to have these negative impacts:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Household mental illness
- Mother treated violently
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member
- Substance misuse within a household
ACEs have a dose response—ACEs add up. As an ACE score increases, so does the likelihood of poor life outcomes, including physical and mental illness, incarceration, addiction and even early death.
How ACEs Affect Development and Health
Persistent, ongoing stress actually changes a child’s brain. The “fight or flight” response (gearing up to respond to stress) happening over and over actually changes how brain cells and neurons develop.
If a child doesn’t consistently feel safe and protected by a caring adult, then their brains may not develop as they should. This change in brain structure can lead to impaired cognitive function—the child can’t think and process information as well.
Behavior is also affected. The ongoing “fight or flight” response can look like a child who is either acting out, or a child who is withdrawn or appears to not care. The immune system is impacted, and children with high ACEs scores are more likely to be sick often. Emotionally, children who are stressed don’t connect with others as well, have trouble with self-regulation and self-control, and often struggle with friendships.
As you can imagine, all of these together significantly impact how a child performs in school, which has life-long effects.
Buffers, and “Protect and Promote”
The most important thing you can do to protect a child is to facilitate the presence of caring adults who can buffer children from the stress of the negative situations.
Even if a child is experiencing significant stress outside of their control, having at least one parent, or grandparent, extended family, adults from church, adults at school, a mentor (Big Brother, Big Sister) help build up a child’s resilience and sense of safety.
There are two keys to prevent serious outcomes from ACEs, and the accumulation of ACEs:
Protect: Protecting a child’s brain means making them feel safe overall. NOTE: A two-generation approach is needed, because the parents are the ones who can most impact the ACEs in the first place. And also, the parents themselves may have had high ACE scores as children themselves, which could have contributed to this whole situation.
Promote: Creating healthy environments and opportunities for children can help them overcome the effects of the ACEs. This can look like a variety of programs at schools, at local non-profit organizations, church programs and more.
Making a Meaningful Impact
Where do we start with making a meaningful impact in reducing both ACEs and their effects? Education is the first step.
Adults need to understand:
- What ACEs are
- How they affect children
- How to reduce ACEs in homes and our community
- How to minimize the impact of ACEs
Below are valuable links with excellent content, including videos that can help adults understand ACEs:
ACEs Aren’t A “Life Sentence”
Finally, we want to make this note…
ACEs aren’t a guarantee of a difficult future—they’re not a “sentence” with a sure result. Resilience comes about from many sources and in many ways, and the ability to rise above or bounce back from negative experiences can help anyone—child or adult—move on to a good life.
However, if you or anyone you love has experienced ACEs, learn all you can and don’t hesitate to ask for help.
Counseling services are available at both Deaconess Cross Pointe and Deaconess Clinic Behavioral Health.