Adverse Childhood Experiences

What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is the term used to represent a group of negative experiences children may face or witness while growing up. These experiences include emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; living in a household in which domestic violence occurs, or where a family member with substance-abuse or other mental disorder resides; parental separation or divorce; and an incarcerated family member.

In the original study of ACEs, begun in 1995 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, two-thirds of the more than 17,000 subjects who filled out confidential surveys about their childhood reported having experienced at least one ACE. Subsequent research has focused on how ACEs have affected people's physical and mental health and well-being as they age.

In general, individuals who have faced more ACEs have been found to be at higher risk for impaired cognitive and social development, as well as for drug abuse, unintended pregnancy, depression, PTSD, and even higher rates of injury.

However, not every person who has a rough childhood grows up to be maladjusted or unhealthy. Some children are less susceptible to the negative effects of their surroundings and  carry less stress with them into adulthood. Other children who, for example, become used to handling parents’ mood swings and outbursts might develop a keen ability to detect others’ emotions and to pick up on nonverbal cues.

How Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect People?

The primary means for practitioners to determine whether adverse childhood experiences might be taking a toll on an individual is to administer the 10-question ACE Questionnaire.

The questionnaire “helps to normalize the conversation about Adverse Childhood Experiences and their impact on our lives,” Vincent Felitti, co-founder of the ACE Study, has said. “When we make it okay to talk about what happened, it removes the power that secrecy so often has.”

Individuals with higher ACE scores, according to some research, may be more emotionally reactive than others and develop a dysregulated fight-or-flight response, perceiving threats in situations that others properly view as neutral. This can hamper the ability to form the kind of alliances that professional and social success depend on.

But when individuals are able to acknowledge their past, and seek help for its possible effects, various approached to treatment may help to ease these cognitive concerns, such as journaling, mindfulness meditation, therapy, and neurofeedback.

More recent research has found that young people who grow up with positive childhood experiences (PCEs)—specifically, being able to talk with their family about their feelings; feeling that their family stood by them during difficult times; enjoying community traditions; feeling a sense of belonging in high school; feeling supported by friends; having at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in them; and feeling safe and protected by an adult in their home—have a lower likelihood of clinical depression as adults, and a higher probability of having healthy relationships.

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