What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic experiences during childhood (from birth to 18 years old) which can have a lifelong effect on mental health. Examples of ACEs include experiencing or witnessing abuse, neglect, or violence in early life.

The safety and stability of a child can be threatened in home environments where there are substance use, carceral, or mental health problems, all of which can be potentially traumatic. ACEs can happen to children from any background, but families from historically marginalized communities are more likely to experience ACEs due to systemic failings. ACEs are common; about 61% of adults and one in three children surveyed reported experiencing at least one type of ACE before 18, and 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Risk Factors for ACEs

Experiencing trauma during childhood can alter the way a child’s brain develops, impact children throughout their whole life, and put them at risk for experiencing mental and physical health conditions. ACES increases the risk of experiencing toxic stress in later life, which can have an impact on overall health. Risk factors for ACEs can be both at the individual and community levels.

According to the CDC, individual and family risk factors can include:

  • Caregiving challenges related to disabilities, mental health conditions, and chronic physical illness
  • Children who cannot talk to their caregivers about feelings
  • Early sexual activity or abuse
  • Children who have limited social interaction or who do not have positive social interactions
  • Caregivers who have limited understanding of child development
  • Caregivers who were themselves neglected as a child
  • Caregivers who are low income
  • Families with lower levels of education
  • Families who experience elevated levels of stress, especially economic stress
  • Caregivers who use spanking or other forms of corporal punishment
  • Families who are inconsistent with parental monitoring or discipline
  • Families that are isolated from others
  • Families with high conflict and negative communication
  • Families who accept or justify violence or aggressive behavior

The aforementioned factors are often caused by systemic failings and community-level injustices. Those are:

  • Communities that experience high rates of violence and crime
  • Communities that experience high rates of poverty
  • Communities that have limited educational and economic opportunities
  • Communities that have higher rates of substance use
  • Communities where there are low levels of community involvement
  • Communities that have limited opportunities and activities for young people
  • Communities experiencing food insecurity
  • Communities without access to stable housing
  • Communities experiencing environmental racism

ACEs do not have one single cause and are determined by a complex interplay between systemic failings and individual circumstances. Protective factors from ACEs include strong community support and increased opportunities for historically marginalized groups.

ACEs and Mood Disorders

ACEs can be a risk factor for mood disorder diagnosis. There is a strong correlation between ACEs and diagnoses of mental health conditions later in life. According to the CDC, preventing ACEs could reduce the number of adults with depression by as much as 44%. Studies have shown that ACEs increase the risk of developing bipolar disorder and might worsen treatment outcomes. More research needs to be done to better understand the relationship between ACEs and mood disorder diagnoses.

Preventing ACEs

ACEs are preventable and are the responsibility of everyone. Creating safe and nurturing environments for our children is essential. Addressing systemic failures is the first step toward creating environments where children can thrive. This includes economic support for families experiencing poverty, violence prevention, and access to high-quality education which includes social-emotional learning. Children need the support of trusted adults and their communities. When ACEs do occur, early intervention and support can improve long-term outcomes.