PTSD Causes What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)? By Wendy Wisner Wendy Wisner Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons. Learn about our editorial process Updated on February 24, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP Medically reviewed by Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP Facebook LinkedIn Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP, is a board-certified pediatric psychologist, parent coach, author, speaker, and owner of A New Day Pediatric Psychology, PLLC. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Mixetto / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)? Prevention Coping 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 Is Traumatic Shock? 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 familyComing from a family with a low level of educationGrowing up with high levels of family stressGrowing up with high levels of economic stressGrowing in a family that is not close knit and doesn’t speak openly about feelingsHaving parents who used spanking or corporal punishmentHaving parents who themselves had been abused or neglectedLiving in a community with high rates of violenceLiving in an economically disadvantaged communityLiving in a community with high levels of substance abuseLiving 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 othersHave trouble keeping a jobHave difficulty with financesExperience depressionBe more likely to be involved in violenceExperience early, unwanted pregnanciesBe more likely to be incarceratedExperience higher levels of unemploymentBe more likely to also expose their children to ACEsHave a higher risk of alcohol or substance abuseHave a higher risk of suicide attemptsHave a higher risk of health issues such as heart disease cancer, lung disease, and liver disease Mental Health Effects of Different Types of Abuse 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 8 Common Misconceptions About Substance Abuse 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. Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts 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. Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults 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. Harvard University. ACEs and Toxic Stress: Frequently Asked Questions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk and Protective Factors. National Conference of State Legislatures. Adverse Childhood Experiences. 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. Additional Reading Merrick M, Ford D, Ports K, Guinn A. Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences From the 2011-2014 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 23 States. JAMA Pediatrics. 2018;172(11):1038–1044. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.2537 National Conference of State Legislatures. Adverse Childhood Experiences. By Wendy Wisner Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? 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