All of our kids experience pain and trauma at some point in their life. Try to name a family that hasn’t gone through a difficult stretch – I can’t. Sometimes, though, life’s bumps and curves rise to a level that can cause lasting impacts on a child’s health and wellbeing, well into adulthood. Researchers have looked into serious events that a group of adults reported they had experienced as children; these were named “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs). The events studied were traumatic, and much more than the typical “bumps” of childhood. The original ACE Study, conducted between 1995 and 1997 by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has helped us understand how events in childhood, and even infancy, impact people later in life. It has also served as a platform for many other studies over the past 15 years. The foundation of ACE research is the correlation between the number of traumas in a child’s life and chronic diseases that develop as an adult, as well as social and emotional problems in adulthood. Researchers have found that exposure to traumas can cause physical damage to a developing brain; literally creating issues in the way a child’s brain becomes wired. The ACE Study categorizes 10 types of childhood trauma, and they fall into two categories. The first one involves family members and includes alcoholism, mental illness, domestic abuse of a mother, a family member in prison, or loss of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. The other category involves those things that happen to the child and includes physical, verbal or sexual abuse as well as physical or emotional neglect. This list is by no means exhaustive because there are so many types of childhood trauma, such as overcoming a severe illness or accident, seeing a sibling abused, being homeless, poverty and more. Only 10 childhood traumas were followed in the study because they were the most commonly mentioned and they had all been well researched. It’s likely that those who have experienced other types of toxic stress over months or years would also face a greater risk of health consequences. The more ACEs a child has, and the longer the exposure to stress, the greater the risk for problems throughout life. Behavior problems defined in the study include substance abuse, reduced physical activity, or missed school or work. Physical issues include severe obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and STDs. Mental health problems manifest as anxiety, depression or suicide attempts. For teens and older children, the overload of stress hormones can make learning more difficult and impact the ability to trust adults or develop healthy relationships with peers. To relieve their stress, they may turn to unhealthy choices like alcohol, overindulgence of food, marijuana (or other drugs), high-risk sports, multiple sex partners, or over-achievement. Of course, not every child exposed to adversity is going to develop problems.
As parents, we can take steps to build resilience in our children that can help them overcome the impact of ACEs or any stressor. For example, help children make friends; engage them in age-appropriate volunteer activities; maintain a daily routine; and help kids set attainable goals and steps to achieve them.
You can teach your child ways to take a break from stress or what’s worrying them, such as through creative activities like music or art, or other things he or she enjoys. The goal is a balance that provides children with better tools to manage the after-effects of ACEs, or any kind of stress, within a supportive, stimulating environment. Family counseling can also be a very useful tool to achieve this balance.
Armed with this knowledge, take an honest look at how your child’s early years and family environment may be impacting your son’s or daughter’s ability to cope. Also look at your own history or things that happened in your family that influence your parenting. To learn what your or your child’s ACE score is, visit www.AcesTooHigh.com/got-your-ace-score.
Patti Skelton-McGougan is executive director of Youth Eastside Services. For more information, call 425-747-4937 or go to www.youtheastsideservices.org.