The impact of adverse childhood experiences & what parents can do

Experiences from the earliest days of childhood are an important part of shaping the brain’s development. Sadly, traumatic episodes leave the deepest impression, manifesting themselves in adulthood in health issues ranging from increases stress to substance abuse. As parents, it’s important to understand how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect children and how to build up the developmental assets necessary to offset the risks that come with ACEs.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between adverse childhood experiences and later-life health and well-being. about 17,000 people were surveyed.

ACE Study measures the prevalence of eight ACEs, consisting of whether the child ever:

  1. Lived with a parent or guardian who got divorced or separated;
  2. Lived with a parent or guardian who died;
  3. Lived with a parent or guardian who served time in jail or prison;
  4.  Lived with anyone who was mentally ill or suicidal, or severely depressed for more than a couple of weeks;
  5. Lived with anyone who had a problem with alcohol or drugs;
  6. Witnessed a parent, guardian, or other adult in the household behaving violently toward another (e.g., slapping, hitting, kicking, punching, or beating each other up);
  7. Was ever the victim of violence or witnessed any violence in his or her neighborhood; and
  8. Experienced economic hardship “somewhat often” or “very often” (i.e., the family found it hard to cover costs of food and housing).

The ACE Study uses the ACE Score, which is a total count of the number of ACEs reported by respondents. The ACE Score is used to assess the total amount of stress during childhood. As the number of ACEs increase, the risk for the following health problems increases. Health problems range from substance abuse to mental illnesses to risky sexual decisions.

Key Findings

  • Multiple ACEs put people at risk for a higher number of health problems.
  • Among children ages birth to 17 in the United States, 54% have 0 ACEs, 35% have 1 or 2, and 11% have 3 or more.
  • Economic hardship is the most common ACE in the United States for children ages birth to 17.
  • Parental divorce or separation is the second most common ACE in the United States for children ages birth to 17.
  • Among Texas children ages birth through 17, the most common ACE is economic hardship, followed in divorce, alcohol problems, and mental illness, respectively.

For more information and research about the ACE Study, go to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

What parents can do

If you’re a parent reading this, it can be a little overwhelming. ACEs are common, and if you’re child has one, there’s a good chance that they will be a perfectly healthy adult. However, understanding ACEs and how many your child has (if they have any) is key in parenting so you can build up protective factors against those possible health problems your child is at risk for. One way to build up protective factors is by understanding the 40 developmental assets and implement them in your child’s life.

The Developmental Assets® are 40 research-based, positive qualities that influence young people’s development, helping them become caring, responsible, and productive adults. The more assets that young people have, the less likely they are to engage in a wide range of high-risk behaviors.

The developmental assets are in categories from early childhood (3-5), grades K-3 (5-9), middle childhood (8-12), and adolescents (12-18) and are broken down into external assets (this is where the family plays an important role) and internal assets. You can download the developmental assets lists here.