ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES
What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)?
The term Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is used to describe a wide range of stressful or traumatic experiences that children can be exposed to whilst growing up. ACEs range from experiences that directly harm a child (such as suffering physical, verbal or sexual abuse, and physical or emotional neglect) to those that affect the environment in which a child grows up (including parental separation, domestic violence, mental illness, alcohol abuse, drug use or incarceration). Of course the adults we work with as parents may also have experienced a number of ACE’s in their childhoods.
What must be remembered is that ACEs can be prevented and we can prevent the consequences of ACEs in those that have already experienced them.
The English ACE population study found the following across England:
• 53% Had experienced 0 ACEs
• 23% Had experienced 1 ACE
• 15% Had experienced 2-3 ACEs
• 9% Had experienced 4+ ACEs
The original ACEs study, which was conducted in the USA, found that around two thirds (64%) of the 17,000 individuals included in the study reported at least one ACE, with over a quarter (26%) suffering physical abuse and a fifth experiencing some form of sexual abuse. Around one in eight individuals (13%) had experienced four or more ACEs.
The ACE animation below tells the story of a young boy growing up, and how his experience with ACEs could affect his life experience.
What impact can ACEs have?
When exposed to stressful situations, the “fight, flight or freeze” response floods our brain with corticotropin-releasing hormones (CRH), which usually forms part of a normal and protective response that subsides once the stressful situation passes. However, when repeatedly exposed to ACEs, CRH is continually produced by the brain, which results in the child remaining permanently in this heightened state of alert and unable to return to their natural relaxed and recovered state. Children and young people who are exposed to ACEs therefore have increased – and sustained - levels of stress. In this heightened neurological state a young person is unable to think rationally and it is physiologically impossible for them to learn.
ACEs can therefore have a negative impact on development in childhood and this can in turn give rise to harmful behaviours, social issues and health problems in adulthood. There is now a great deal of research demonstrating that ACEs can negatively affect lifelong mental and physical health by disrupting brain and organ development and by damaging the body's system for defending against diseases. The more ACEs a child experiences, the greater the chance of health and/or social problems in later life.
ACEs research shows that there is a strong dose-response relationship between ACEs and poor physical and mental health, chronic disease (such as type II diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; heart disease; cancer), increased levels of violence, and lower academic success both in childhood and adulthood.
Can ACEs be prevented?
Whether you are an adult looking to reverse the impact of your own ACEs, or a parent or caregiver keen to make sure that your children do not grow up with ACEs themselves or the provider of services for this population, the simple answer is - yes! Stable, nurturing adult-child relationships and environments help children develop strong cognitive and emotional skills and the resilience required to flourish as adults. By encouraging such relationships ACEs can be prevented, even in difficult circumstances, and it is crucial to support and nurture children and young people as they develop and grow. For adults who experienced ACEs in their childhood, it is also very possible to minimise the impact of ACEs on their health, relationships and lives in general.
There is a growing recognition that early intervention and collaborative working are essential to reducing the impact of ACEs.
The vision of services (Education, Health, Mental Health, Social Care, third sector organisations etc) can reduce the number of adversities experienced by people and build resilience of those who have already experienced ACEs.
For more information, check out this TED talk: