What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

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Childhood is a vulnerable time, and what happens to us then has long deep impacts. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) describe traumatic experiences that can have lasting effects into adulthood. The more ACEs someone experiences, the more challenging they may be to overcome.

Let’s take a look at what adverse childhood experiences are, what impacts they may have, how to prevent them—and most importantly, how you can cope if you are someone who endured traumatic experiences in childhood.

What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic experiences that children experience before the age of 18 that can have lasting impacts on their mental health, physical health, and general well-being.

Many kinds of traumas in childhood can be ACEs. Some examples of ACEs include:

  • Experiencing physical or emotional abuse
  • Abandonment or neglect
  • Losing a family member to suicide
  • Growing up in a household with substance abuse or alcoholism
  • Having a mentally ill parent
  • Having an incarcerated parent
  • Being a child of divorce or parental separation

Between 1995 to 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in conjunction with Kaiser Permanente, began the first study of ACEs with the goal of coming up with a framework for this concept.

In the study, roughly 17,000 people were interviewed about various traumatic experiences they experienced in childhood, including abuse, violence, neglect, and abandonment.

An estimated 66% of responders revealed that they’d experienced at least one ACE; 20% had experienced three ACEs. The researchers noted connections between experiencing ACEs and detriments to one’s physical health years later, including heart disease and cancer.

Risk Factors For Adverse Childhood Experiences

ACEs don’t happen randomly. A child’s economic status, family history, and the kind of community they grow up in all come into play.

Here are some of the factors that may make a child more likely to experience an ACE:

  • Coming from a low income family
  • Coming from a family with a low level of education
  • Growing up with high levels of family stress
  • Growing up with high levels of economic stress
  • Growing in a family that is not close knit and doesn’t speak openly about feelings
  • Having parents who used spanking or corporal punishment
  • Having parents who themselves had been abused or neglected
  • Living in a community with high rates of violence
  • Living in an economically disadvantaged community
  • Living in a community with high levels of substance abuse
  • Living in a community with few resources for youth

How Common Are ACEs?

Unfortunately, ACEs are not rare. According to the CDC, about 61% of adults experienced an ACE, and 1 in 6 adults have experienced four or more different ACEs.

It’s important to note that there are racial disparities when it comes to ACEs, with children of color experiencing more ACEs than White children. As per the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 61% of Black children have experienced an ACE and about 51% of Hispanic children have.

On the other hand, 40% of white children had experienced an ACE, and 23% of Asian children had.

What Impacts Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Have?

All children live through difficult experiences at times, but with the right tools, they can learn from their experiences and become stronger. ACEs are traumas that are more difficult to overcome and that can leave lasting scars on a child, especially if the child is not supported through.

ACEs can cause what is called “toxic stress,” which is where the stress that floods the body is so intense that it can cause changes to one’s metabolism, immune system, cardiovascular system, as well as brain and nervous system. There is a cumulative effect when it comes to toxic stress, and the more ACEs a child experiences, the greater impact it can have on their mental and physical health.

Children who experience ACEs and toxic stress may:

  • Have difficulty forming close relationships with others
  • Have trouble keeping a job
  • Have difficulty with finances
  • Experience depression
  • Be more likely to be involved in violence
  • Experience early, unwanted pregnancies
  • Be more likely to be incarcerated
  • Experience higher levels of unemployment
  • Be more likely to also expose their children to ACEs
  • Have a higher risk of alcohol or substance abuse
  • Have a higher risk of suicide attempts
  • Have a higher risk of health issues such as heart disease cancer, lung disease, and liver disease

How to Prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences

The good news here is that not every child is fated to experience multiple ACEs. Parents, community members, physicians, policy makers, and anyone who works with children have an obligation to prevent ACEs.

According to the CDC, preventing ACEs in children includes several steps and is truly a group effort. Here are some of the top ways we can prevent ACEs in children:

  • Policy makers can work toward increasing financial security for families and preventing food and housing insecurity
  • Workplaces can make their institutions more family-friendly and establish family leave policies
  • Communities and policy makers can protect against violence by promoting anti-violence campaigns and education
  • Professionals who work with families can teach positive parenting skills and teach socio-emotional learning
  • Policy makers can promote a strong start for children by expanding childcare, preschool, and early childhood education options
  • Communities can prioritize youth services, mentors for youth, and substance abuse recovery programs

Coping With Adverse Childhood Experiences

Again, having experienced an ACE is common, and if you are someone who experienced one, you are not alone. You are also not alone in feeling the impacts of that trauma even years later.

If you are experiencing anxiety, depression, or PTSD related to ACEs, a trauma-focused therapist or social worker can help you work through this, and get to the other side. If you are also experiencing physical effects that you think are linked to this trauma, speaking to a healthcare provider is another important step.

Lifestyle changes can also help you cope with and work through your trauma. Consider adding in mediation, breathing exercises, and physical activity and exercise. Journaling is another wonderful tool that can help you unpack your feelings.

If you are recovering from a trauma like abuse, abandonment, growing up with mentally ill parents, or parents who abused alcohol or drugs, you may want to join a support group specific to that experience. Speaking with other grown-ups who experienced similar ACEs as you did can be invaluable to your recovery.

Press Play for Advice On Healing Childhood Wounds

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring award-winning actress Chrissy Metz, shares how to heal childhood trauma, safeguard your mental health, and how to get comfortable when faced with difficult emotions. Click below to listen now.

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A Word From Verywell

If you or someone you love has experienced an adverse childhood experience, it can be difficult to talk about, think about, or even read about. Childhood traumas can live in our psyches and our bodies for years to come, and it’s common to feel triggered easily at their mere mention.

Please remember that even someone who experienced several ACEs can heal and recover from the experience. Help is out there, and it’s possible to live a full life even if you have endured trauma in childhood.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard University. ACEs and Toxic Stress: Frequently Asked Questions.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study.

  4. Felitti V, Anda R, Nordenberg D. Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 1998;14(4):P245-258. doi:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk and Protective Factors.

  6. National Conference of State Legislatures. Adverse Childhood Experiences.

  7. Bellis M, Lowey H, Leckenby N, Hughes K, Harrison D. Adverse childhood experiences: retrospective study to determine their impact on adult health behaviours and health outcomes in a UK population. Journal of Public Health. 2014;36(1):81–91. doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdt038

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences.

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