Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

The need to deal with past trauma is more common than many think. Ignoring wounds do not make them go away. ACEs which stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, is a conversation that needs to take place more regularly in every sphere of life. It is the biggest global health crisis of our time, yet only few are recognizing the importance of dealing with ACEs.

ACEs are negative experiences in childhood that impact the developing brain in children changing how they respond to stress. It also impacts their immune system and nervous system so profoundly that the effects play out long into adulthood. ACEs are the root for many chronic diseases, most mental illness and most violence. The groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, as well as financial and social problems was a collaboration between the CDC and Kaiser Permanente. The ACE Study has published around 70 research papers since the late 1990’s. Hundreds of additional research papers based on the ACE Study have also been published.

So what are considered to be adverse childhood experiences? In the original study, there were 10 adverse experiences measured. They are physical, sexual and/or verbal abuse; physical and/or emotional neglect; a family member who struggles with mental illness, addicted to alcohol or another substance or a family member in prison; witnessing a parent being abused; losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason (this was updated in 2019 to state “not being raised by both biological parents”). Additional research has added 7 more adverse experiences including bullying, discrimination, involvement with the foster care system, community violence, death of a parent or guardian, medical trauma and deportation/migration. These types of stress on children are called toxic stress and they have a huge impact on developing brains and bodies. They are the biggest predictor of future violence and becoming a victim of violence, adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness.

How common are ACEs? Adverse Childhood Experiences are very common, in fact 64% of adults have at least 1 ACE. If you have one ACE, there’s an 87% chance that you have two or more. Facts about the study: There were 17,000 participants in the original study; mostly white, middle and upper-middle class college-educated people with good jobs and great health care. 34 states and the District of Columbia have replicated the study across different socio-economic lines and all the results remain similar.

Facts about ACEs:

34.8 million children in the US are affected by ACEs

2 out of 3 adults have 1 or more ACEs

1 out of 8 adults have 4 or more ACEs