By Helen Storms
What Exactly is an Adverse Childhood Experience?
Childhood is the most formative time in a person’s life. It’s the time when experiences, both positive and negative, can make a lasting impact on one’s development and personality, as well as who they become in the future. To understand what that impact is, we first need to determine what exactly qualifies as an adverse childhood experience, or ACE.
Generally, ACEs divided into three different categories, abuse, household challenges, and neglect. In terms of abuse, this could involve emotional abuse, physical abuse or sexual abuse. This might come from a parent, stepparent, family friend, sibling or even a stranger.
Household challenges involve traumatic events that would have made for a difficult living environment. In many cases, this involves substance abuse whether in the form of alcohol or drugs. Other times it involves witnessing domestic abuse, for example a child watching their father abuse their mother. Perhaps a child had to leave the place they called home and have their life uprooted due to a parent being incarcerated or their parents going through a messy divorce.
Finally, ACE’s often come in the form of neglect. Neglect doesn’t necessarily refer to the physical abuse you would typically think of, but rather a parent’s failure to provide for their child. For example, a child who is sent to school without being properly fed or without clean clothes is experiencing neglect.
There’s no denying that any one of these experiences would be traumatic. But to what extent do Adverse Childhood Experiences affect a child’s overall health and the way they interact with others? A new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined a group of middle class adults with the approximate age of 57. The study was specifically looking at the connection between Adverse Childhood Experiences and social functioning. Researchers questioned the subjects about their childhoods, particularly the negative or traumatic aspects of their early lives.
The study utilized the three main categories of abuse, household challenges, and neglect. Child abuse was divided into three subcategories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Meanwhile, the category of household challenges was divided into five subcategories including violence against a mother, substance abuse, a family member in prison, mental illness and divorce. Finally, the category of child neglect was divided into the smaller subcategories of emotional and physical neglect.
Those partaking in the study were to fill out a questionnaire that included all ten of these subcategories. They were then expected to check a box corresponding to that specific experience if that was indeed something they had encountered in their youth.
Each subcategory was assigned a point, thus each time a subject checked off a box they were given an additional point to be added to their final score. In the end, however many points they’d received would be considered their overall ACE score. After determining a subject’s Adverse Childhood Experience score, it was then time to look and see how the rest of their life played out.
Certain factors researchers were particularly interested in were that of physical and mental health, as well as social and familial factors. In terms of physical health, they were looking to examine what type of shape the subject was in. Did they struggle with obesity or binge eating? Perhaps they had battled an eating disorder while in their teens. Sexual history is also important. Were they dealing with a sexually transmitted disease? Within this specific category, habits that would potentially cause a risk to ones health were also examined. For example, did they smoke cigarettes or abuse alcohol or drugs? All of these combined together help paint a picture of one’s overall physical health.
From a more mental standpoint, researchers were looking at a subjects overall mental wellbeing. Had they ever struggled with anxiety or depression? Was there ever a time in their life when they found themselves experiencing suicidal thoughts? Maybe they found it difficult to cope with their anger.
Finally, researchers looked at what a particular subjects family life was like. Were they in a healthy romantic relationship or divorced? What was their relationship with their children like now?
After determining this information, researchers then looked for a link between high ACE scores and high-risk behaviors later on in life. Their findings were unfortunate but not surprising. Those with high ACE scores were far more likely to engage in behaviors that put their own health at risk later on in life. In fact, those with high ACE scores were also looking at a far lower life expectancy. Those with a score of six points or higher had a lower life expectancy by about twenty years.
How to Stop the Cycle
As disturbing and discouraging as these findings are, not every person with a high ACE score is destined to live an unhealthy or risk saturated life later on. It is important to note that each person, regardless of their background or childhood experiences, possesses what it takes to stop the cycle. Even if their own youth was filled with trauma and extreme challenges, doesn’t mean they will not be able to provide for their children in the way their own parents could not. Nevertheless, we should value these findings as they depict just how big of a role ACE’s can play on the future and health of an individual.
About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study |Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC. (2019).
Retrieved July 4, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/about.html
Gil, T. (2019, January 16). Adverse Childhood Experiences. Retrieved 2019, from