Adverse Childhood Experiences

Exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in young children affects the developing brain in ways that impact behavior, cognitive development, and physical health. Adverse childhood experiences occur when a child under the age of eighteen is exposed to traumatic events or situations. What probably comes to your mind when you hear the word “trauma” is a trip to the emergency room for a head injury. But it means something different when it comes to ACEs. Repeated exposure or exposure to multiple ACEs can result in children exhibiting the symptoms of what is called “toxic stress.” Toxic stress refers to the body’s reaction to chronic “stress-response-inducing events” (Shonkoff, 2012). Science now supports what educators have long suspected, in that the stress from ACEs has a significant impact on a child’s physical, emotional, and mental health that can have lifelong consequences. Some examples of ACEs include:

  • Emotional, Physical, and Sexual Abuse
  • Emotional and Physical Neglect
  • ACEs Toolkit - Association of American Indian PhysiciansHousehold violence toward the mother
  • Household substance abuse and mental illness
  • Parental Separation or Divorce
  • Incarceration of a Household Member

The original ACEs study was a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser, conducted in the mid-90s. Two physicians, one who was studying the effect of depression on heart disease and the other who was uncovering connections between obesity and sexual abuse, joined efforts to research the prevalence of ACEs in more than 17,000 participants. What they discovered was that ACEs were linked to adult-onset of chronic diseases, mental illness, incarceration, and work difficulties. And that two-thirds of adults had experienced at least one ACE during childhood. The more ACEs a child experiences, the greater the risk of developing chronic conditions later on in life. Therefore, early intervention upon exposure can make all the difference in a child’s brain development. ACEs do have the potential to be reversed with proper treatment. As parents, caregivers, and providers we must be vigilant in signs and symptoms of toxic stress through ACEs, in order to address the issue before it affects a child’s brain development negatively.

Photo Credit: (American Association of Indian Physicians, 2022)


Posted: April 1, 2022


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