What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Childhood is extremely important for a person’s development and will have a lasting impact on a child’s adulthood. What happens during the first 17-18 years of a person’s life leaves a map of what their future may look like. During this time, children experience very little control of the world around them. Most of the decisions are made for them by their adult caregiver. Sometimes, the events in a child’s life can be difficult or traumatic, leaving lasting effects on their well-being as they live as adults. These events are sometimes called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. It is important to keep in mind that stressful events and trauma have different effects from person to person and child to child.

Defining Trauma:

To understand ACEs, we must first dive a bit into trauma. Trauma can be hard to unravel, and it may take some time to fully understand. When a person or child is in a situation and they believe they are in danger or feel completely helpless and powerless, they are in a traumatic situation. When you experience trauma your brain and body begin to react, and you go into protection mode to survive. After experiencing trauma, people may feel many different emotions. It is common to feel like everything has changed and that you would have to re-learn different things.

To better understand the effects of trauma, think about how your body reacts in an extremely stressful situation. Typically, in these situations, you may feel tense or have sweaty palms, maybe a feeling in the pit of your stomach. You will brace yourself for whatever stressful situation you are in and you may feel the urge to “fight, flight, or freeze”. “Fight, flight, or freeze” is known as the body’s response to highly stressful situations, and it is what triggers us to defend ourselves, run away, or hide in dangerous situations. When the body is in what is felt to be a life-threatening situation, your heart begins to beat quickly, your palms may get sweaty, and your brain starts to fire signals that determine your next move. When this situation is triggered outside of life threating situations it can cause you to feel tense, the urge to run, or paralyzed. This response is perfectly normal in stressful or life threating situations, but when you are constantly reacting this way it is difficult for your body to handle. Many people experience this feeling every day when they are victims of trauma. Being on guard every day may cause a person to experience a greater risk of health complications like cancer, heart disease, and hepatitis.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

There are many factors that can lead to a child experiencing ACEs. Among other things, a child’s family situation, a close family member’s substance use challenges, coming from a divorced or single family household, and neglect can all be ACEs indicators. According to the CDC, 61% of children experience something that would be considered an ACEs indicator and 14% of children experience 4 or more. Many children, regardless of gender, race, and socioeconomic status, can experience trauma that may have undesired effects on their future and health. Health trends include some of the leading killers in America including some cancers and heart disease.

It is important for care teams to be aware of the traumatic events that a person has experienced in childhood. This information can ensure that the most appropriate treatment is being provided. For example, sometimes, when a child is impulsive, hyper, loses focus easily, or shows other symptoms that is common for someone with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), they may actually be experiencing the effects of living through a traumatic experience. Treatment for ADHD is not always effective for treating trauma, and the symptoms may grow or possibly get worse.


Preventing ACEs in a child’s life can decrease the risk of the child suffering from loss of interest, sadness, lack of energy, normally known as depression, by as much as 44%. Fortunately, ACEs are often avoidable and treatable. Knowing many of the above signs can help parents and caregivers better understand how to best support their children. Along with working to prevent traumatic events, parents or caregivers can make sure to treat the root of the symptoms and the events the child is experiencing. Communities can work together to give children support and activities after school and during the summer months when out of school, and can work to decrease the risk of experiencing trauma and its harmful effects. Adults and mentorship programs also help children build skills and social support to assist them in dealing with difficult life situations. Showing a child that you are there for them can greatly assist and help to decrease the effects of ACEs.

At NorthKey Community Care, our behavioral health care professionals are trained and knowledgeable on treating the whole child using a trauma-informed care approach to ensure that each child’s specific needs are met in a way that assists in setting and accomplishing the family and child’s health and well-being goals.

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