Acing the Aces
So often working in child abuse I hear people say things like “Thank goodness he’s too young to remember it” or “Kids are resilient”. I wish so badly that I could simply nod in agreement. Unfortunately, while those statements can sometimes be accurate, the impact of childhood trauma is just not that simple. The reality is that exposure to adverse childhood experiences, including abuse, can change the brain and body in ways that may lead to issues in adulthood. In fact, trauma can actually alter our DNA!
While we are constantly learning new things about the brain, body, and trauma, research has detailed long-term effects for decades. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study in the 1990s was one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being. This study surveyed more than 17,000 to explore connections between adverse childhood experiences and health and wellness in adulthood. The ACE study uncovered some shocking results: even when accounting for higher risk lifestyle behaviors, adults who had experienced ACEs were more likely to experience a wide variety of health issues, including COPD, heart disease, strokes, and more.
So just what are the ACEs? While years of additional research add new data all the time, the ACE’s categories have remained consistent. ACEs include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, domestic violence in the home, incarcerated relative, mental illness in the home, substance abuse in the home, and divorce in the home. With the recognition that family or domestic violence is indeed a form of child abuse comes the understanding that more than half of the ACEs are child abuse and maltreatment.
As a society, we understand that child abuse and trauma impacts the mental health of children. Indeed, outcomes including poor performance in school, depression, anxiety, and even suicidality is not unexpected in victims. However, we now understand that the impacts reach far greater. Children with high levels of ACEs are more likely to be incarcerated, abuse substances, struggle with work in adulthood, face obesity, be diagnosed with physical conditions including heart disease, stroke, COPD, cancer, and even face an early death.
Now you may find yourself thinking “I am so glad child abuse and issues like this are so rare!”. Unfortunately, they just aren’t. In fact, during the initial ACE study, 64% of people surveyed reported at least one ACE. Combine this statistic with the estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they reach the age of 18 and it can feel overwhelming, even hopeless. But don’t worry! There is hope. Today research continues into what is often known as reverse ACEs or protective factors. Research and experience have taught us one critical truth: Children who are offered high quality intervention, treatment, and support recover and demonstrate increased levels of resilience. Every child who is able to speak out, tell their story, be believed and helped has the best potential to go on and lead a happy healthy adult life.
There are many ways that you can get involved in helping children heal from ACEs. You can volunteer at your local child-serving organization, learn the signs and how to report child maltreatment and abuse, financially support your local CAC, and perhaps most importantly, be a trusted and supportive adult for the children in your lives!