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Adverse Childhood Experiences

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

The term "adverse childhood experience" refers to a range of negative situations a child may face or witness while growing up. These experiences include emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; parental separation or divorce; or living in a household in which domestic violence occurs. Other difficult situations include living in a household with an alcoholic or substance-abuser, or with family members who suffer mental disorders, or in a household with an incarcerated family member.

The Study of Childhood Experiences

In the original study of childhood experiences, 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 adverse childhood experience. Subsequent research has focused on how these experiences have affected people's physical and mental health and well-being as they age.

Are people who have suffered these experiences at higher risk for later problems?

Individuals who have faced more difficult childhood experiences have been found to be at higher risk for impaired cognitive and social development, as well as for drug abuse, unintended pregnancy, depression, and PTSD.

Are some people less susceptible?

Not every person who has suffered 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.

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The Effects of Childhood Experiences
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Young people who grow up with positive childhood experiences have a lower likelihood of clinical depression as adults, and a higher probability of having healthy relationships. Positive childhood experiences include a child being able to talk with 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.

How can mental health professionals determine at-risk individuals?

The primary means for practitioners to ascertain whether adverse childhood experiences might be taking a toll on a child is to administer the 10-question Adverse Childhood Experience (ACES) Questionnaire.

Why is the ACES Questionnaire helpful?

This questionnaire “helps to normalize the conversation about adverse childhood experiences and their impact on lives,” says Vincent Felitti, who has studied children coming from tough environments. “When we make it okay to talk about what happened, it removes the power that secrecy so often has.”

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