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  • Youth Mental Health Association

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Trigger Warning: Childhood Trauma and Abuse

What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)?

They have been defined as potential traumatic events such as emotional, sexual or physical abuse during the first 18 years of life. There are many different types of ACEs, with studies often not being able to include every single one.

It is important to make a distinction between ACEs and childhood trauma - ACE is a broad term that refers to a wide range of circumstances or events that pose a threat to a child’s well-being. Trauma is one of the possible outcomes of ACEs. It occurs when a person perceives an event or events to be extremely frightening or threatening. Trauma can also affect each child differently based on factors such as personality traits and their support system. Certain types of ACEs are more likely to cause trauma than others, with certain ACEs having more variability in responses to the experience based on numerous factors.

Some examples of ACEs: child abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), child neglect, household mental illness, household substance use/ alcoholism, witnessing domestic violence, having family members in jail, parent separation/ divorce, death of a parent or sibling.

So why are ACEs important?

A groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences study, conducted by the CDC, brought ACEs into the spotlight. This study found that there was a strong relationship between exposure to abuse or dysfunction during childhood and multiple risk factors for leading causes of death in adults.

This paper really highlighted that stressful childhoods can have a negative impact on long term health outcomes - but there was no intervention that occurred after the study was published. The authors, Dr. Felitti and Dr. Anda later calculated that the effects of child abuse had higher costs than any other disorder or disease, like heart disease or cancer, on the American medical system.

So how does ACE lead to the long term negative effects?

As we all know, prolonged stress is detrimental to our overall health. The effects of ACEs work in similar ways. By having ACEs at a young age, our brain development is altered in a way that can no longer properly respond to stress. This has been found to occur in prolonged stress states in adulthood as well, like in PTSD. But since these changes occur at a young age, it can have a bigger impact on our system as we have yet to develop any coping mechanisms. It has a kind of domino effect, affecting other aspects of development in social, cognitive, and emotional domains. This then increases the probability of using maladaptive coping strategies such as smoking, or alcoholism -- which all increase chances of health risks.

ACEs can also affect the way your body responds to stress in a detrimental manner, compromising immune responses, and increasing vulnerabilities to poor health outcomes throughout life.

What can we do to help prevent ACEs?

There have been an increasing number of studies of childhood experiences and possible effects of trauma; slowly being integrated into the healthcare approach.

It is first important to realize that ACEs can occur in any shape or form and having a specific type of family or lifestyle does not protect you from them - learning and being aware of ACEs is vital in preventing them. It is also important to recognize different challenges families may face and offer support to help alleviate stress. If you want to be more directly involved in helping prevent ACEs there are various organizations and community programs that you can dedicate your time to support children and families.

Big Brothers/ Big Sisters

  • Volunteering as a mentor is an incredible option to dedicate your time to support children with adversity and help them develop into healthy adults

  • Donating will help fund their early intervention programs and resources they offer to children and youth

Canadian Child Abuse Association

  • Volunteering as a child witness in a court accompaniment program is also a great option to support children and their families going through court processes

  • Donating will help children gain access to a child-specialized approach preparation to testify in court to prevent further trauma and receive a fair judicial processes

The PACE Program

  • Volunteer in one of their many programs aimed to provide a range of early intervention as well as treatment services to young children and their families, where there may be ongoing concerns about the child’s emotional well-being and/or challenging behaviours

  • Donating will help the organization to continue providing these services and help prevent financial hardship on families

Little Warriors

  • Volunteer as a facilitator for their workshop aimed at teaching participants to help prevent child sexual abuse

  • Donate to help the organization raise awareness of child sexual abuse, educate adults to help prevent it, and provide treatment to children at the Be Brave Ranch

Book Review of The Body Keeps Score

Trauma and resilience has been the topic of many social media mental health campaigns during the pandemic and have increased public awareness to how traumatic events can affect people throughout their whole life.

Throughout my university education of learning about brains and their development, early experiences can be especially impressionable on the young brain.

By Sue Rim Baek

YMHA Contributor


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