Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
UNDERSTANDING ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES (ACEs) and TOXIC STRESS
A landmark study on the effects of “adverse childhood experiences,” known as the ACE study, confirms both the extraordinary pervasiveness of trauma and the nature and extent of its impact on physical, emotional, and psychological health, as well as its social impact. The study, a collaboration between Kaiser Permanente and the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), found that approximately 64% of children experience at least one adverse experience (e.g., abuse, neglect, incarcerated parent, divorce, etc.) and 20% experience 3 or more. In addition, it was found that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are strongly related to development and prevalence of risk factors for health (e.g., obesity, smoking, and drug use) and social well-being throughout the lifespan. The type of stress that results when a child experiences ACEs (including poverty) may become toxic when there is “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship.”
Toxic stress impairs attention, emotion and mood regulation, sleep, and learning readiness. Exposure to such events has been shown to increase the child’s short- and long-term social-emotional and behavioral struggles (e.g., anxiety, acting out behaviors, impulsivity, inattention, depression, etc.) and therefore often is misdiagnosed as another disorder (e.g., ADHD, ODD, Bipolar Disorder). Unfortunately, these children typically do not receive the appropriate treatment. Study findings repeatedly reveal a graded dose-response relationship between ACEs and negative health and well-being outcomes across the life course. Trauma can also interfere with the capacity for creative play, which is one of the ways children learn how to cope with the problems of everyday life. Even more troubling, prolonged exposure to childhood toxic stress has lifelong impacts on mental and physical health.
However, these adverse experiences in childhood do not have to dictate the future of a child. Children survive and even thrive despite the toxic stress in their lives. For these children, adverse experiences are counterbalanced with protective factors. Adverse events and protective factors experienced together have the potential to foster resilience. Our knowledge about what constitutes resilience in children is evolving, but we know that several factors are positively related to such protection, including cognitive capacity, healthy attachment relationships (especially with parents and caregivers), the motivation and ability to learn and engage with the environment, the ability to regulate emotions and behavior, and supportive environmental systems, including education, cultural beliefs, and faith-based communities. Research has identified a number of factors that can help youth overcome toxic stress associated with poverty and trauma, such as:.
◄Development of Social-Emotional Skills (e.g. self-regulation)
◄A Sense of Purpose and Hope
◄Movement, Exercise, and Play
◄Expressive Arts (e.g., Music, Dance, Painting, Pottery, Writing, etc.)