Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

by Emily Cline

The first week of Mental Health Awareness month is dedicated to children’s mental health. Children, between the ages of 1 and 17, are at risk for experiencing adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. ACEs are traumatic experiences with long-term effects on those who experience them. These experiences affect development and relationships as the child grows. ACEs are measured in a point system, with every statement relatable earning a point on the test. This means that ACES are cumulative. The higher your score at the end, the more ACEs you have experienced.

ACEs fall under many categories, ranging anywhere from parental stressors to social disadvantage. Children under the age of four, or children that need more strenuous caregiver attention (e.g., disabilities, mental health issues, and chronic physical illnesses), are more at risk for experiencing an ACE.

Some key factors that might put a child at risk for ACEs:

  • Parents’ lack of understanding of children’s needs, child development and parenting skills
  • Parental history of child abuse and or neglect
  • Substance abuse and/or mental health issues, including depression in the family
  • Parental characteristics such as young age, low education, single parenthood, a large number of dependent children, and low income
  • Non-biological, transient caregivers in the home (e.g., mother’s male partner)
  • Parental thoughts and emotions that tend to support or justify maltreatment behaviors
  • Social isolation
  • Family stress, separation or divorce, and violence, including intimate partner violence
  • Parenting stress, poor parent-child relationships, and negative interactions
  • Community violence
  • Concentrated neighborhood disadvantage (e.g., high poverty, high unemployment rates, and high density of alcohol outlets), and poor social connections.

Raising the next generation in a safe and encouraging way is important for who they will become as adults and how they will function in society. Increasing the number of protective factors can diminish the amount of abuse or neglect experienced by a child. It is arguably more important to understand how we can help protect our children from experiencing ACEs than to understand what causes them. If these precautions are taken, even in homes where it is unlikely an ACE will occur, children will be more likely to thrive.

Some things we can do to protect youth from ACEs are:

  • Create a safe and supportive family environment
  • Making sure kids know that their basic needs will be met daily
  • Nurturing parenting skills
  • Stable family relationships
  • Setting household rules and monitoring children’s behavior and interactions
  • Parental employment
  • Parental education
  • Adequate housing
  • Access to health care and social services
  • Caring adults outside the family who can serve as role models or mentors

It is fair to recognize and acknowledge that some of the protective factors are circumstantial or out of the parent/guardian’s control. If a child grows up lacking some of the things in this list, it does not automatically deem the parent unfit.

If I am being honest, I did not experience ACEs growing up. While I am beyond grateful for this, I know that is not the case for so many children. Just like you probably know someone living with a mental illness, you probably know and love someone who experienced an Adverse Childhood Experience. With that being said, I asked one of the most beloved people in my life what they would have wanted to know when they were a child, growing up amidst a multitude of ACEs, and what they want people to know about them now. Here is what they said…

When I was a child, I would have needed to hear that it was not my fault. I did not cause the ACEs I experienced. I can’t remember a lot of the ACEs I experienced, more often I remember the ones I saw happen to my siblings; I think because I was too busy trying to keep the peace. In that, I wouldn’t consider how I react to situations a trauma response. I don’t think I recognized a lot of my ACEs as trauma until others labeled them in that way for me once I got older. Kids might not understand what they are going through when it is happening to them, especially when it is associated with their normal routine.

Now, as an adult, I would want people to understand that how I react to certain situations are shaped from what I experienced when I was younger. I can recognize a lot of my reactions to stress and to triggering situations as trauma responses, directly from my ACEs. Due to that, I learned coping behaviors, from a young age, that I now have had to deal with as an adult.

In this unprecedented time of COVID-19, the potential for ACEs, such as domestic violence, are skyrocketing. Although Mental Health Awareness month is celebrated every May, the current understanding and protection of our children is even more valuable at this time!

Hi! My name is Emily Cline and I am from Christiansburg, Virginia. I recently graduated from Roanoke College with a Bachelor of Arts in both Public Health Studies and Sociology. I hold both my ZUMBA license and my Group Fitness Instructor certification through the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and love the combination they provide in strengthening both mental and physical health! Mental health education is important to me because of the impact it has on every aspect of our lives. Without truly understanding and caring for ourselves, we will never have the opportunity to live this beautiful life to the fullest!

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