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Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

What it is

The groundbreaking CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study identified 10 early traumas that can change the structure and function of the brain, change how a person responds to stress, and raise the risk for chronic diseases as an adult. 

  • Physical, sexual and verbal abuse
  • Physical and emotional neglect
  • A family member who is
    • Depressed or diagnosed with other mental illness
    • Addicted to alcohol or another substance
    • In prison
  • Witnessing a mother being abused
  • Losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reasons

Why it matters

ACEs are common. Of the 17,000 people in the original study, nearly two-thirds (64%) of adults had experienced at least one ACE. Comparable results have been found in studies conducted at least once in 47 states and Washington DC. Later studies measured additional ACEs and took into account factors such as social conditions and historical trauma. 

Childhood traumas can have serious lifelong repercussions. Higher ACEs scores are associated with risky health behaviors, poor physical and mental health, and even early death.

Fortunately, there is hope. Protective factors can mitigate the damage. The first and most important protective factor is a secure attachment to a primary caregiver. This supportive relationship counteracts the damaging effects of these traumatic experiences. A supportive caregiver is responsive, buffers the child from adversity, builds skills to adapt to adversity and creates positive experiences. Other mitigating factors include the child’s temperament, intellectual capacity and social competence.

Children can also develop resilience, which helps them cope with ACEs. Resilience is possible due to the high plasticity of the brain that allows it to heal and change with new environments. Mindfulness practices, exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep and healthy social interactions further allow people's brains and bodies to heal.

What effective practice looks like

Youth development volunteers and professionals who understand the impacts of ACEs are more likely to understand a child’s misbehavior as a coping response.  As youth workers gain understanding, they are more likely to listen to a child to help them manage their emotions through calming practices, and teach new skills to manage behavior. Successful interventions are asset-based and focus and expand on what children are doing well.

Tips for program staff

  • Gain understanding. It's important to learn more about ACEs. Start conversations with community members from a variety of sectors to build a community understanding. Learn trauma-informed practices and apply them to your programs. These practices teach skills such as mindfulness, executive function and self-regulatory skills, as well as how to avoid triggers that may re-traumatize youth.
  • Reframe your thoughts.  When you observe challenging behavior, ask, “What has happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”.
  • Avoid stereotypes, which can harm children, lead to discrimination, and even become self-fulfilling prophecies. Avoid assumptions that a child from a divorced family or one who is misbehaving has a high ACE score. Learn more to understand the child. 
  • Encourage health-promoting activities such as regular physical exercise and stress-reduction practices. Build opportunities for developmental relationships with youth and between youth in your programs.
  • Practice mindfulness and model healthy behaviors for the youth and other adults in your life.
  • Teach youth skills for problem solving, paying attention, understanding feelings and managing their own behavior. Provide safe environments for youth to practice the new skills they are learning.
  • Collaborate with youth. Check your own behavior and identify ways that you empower, overpower and disempower youth. Be intentional to nurture healthier relationships with youth in your program.

Author: Melissa Persing, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2020

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