How ACEs Impact a Child's Health and Well Being

Research has shown that experiencing repeated adversity as a child can lead to long-lasting effects into adulthood. Children who are exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can exhibit physical, emotional and psychological problems later on that can impact nearly every aspect of life. Toxic stress can affect how our brains develop and even our biological and genetic makeup. 

Experts have identified 10 different ACEs that are related to either abuse, neglect, or overall household dysfunction. Exposure to ACEs is extremely common; nearly 25% of all New Jersey residents have experienced at least one ACE, and 18% have experienced two or more. ACEs are associated with an increased risk for the leading adult causes of death, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s and suicide.

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ACEs can affect us in ways that may not be immediately apparent, or in ways that are unexpected: 
 
ACEs can affect the size of our brains. When a person experiences toxic stress, the brain releases a hormone that shrinks the hippocampus, which processes memory, emotion and the management of stress. 
We may overreact to everyday experiences. We all have exposure to some level of stress in our lives. But when we are repeatedly put into painful situations as a child, our stress response is put into overdrive, and the ability to respond appropriately can be lost. 
Kids lack good models to manage their lives. Coming from a dysfunctional household often means a lack of consistency, and kids raised in these homes often have poor executive functioning and decision-making themselves. 
We can age faster. Early exposure to toxic stress is linked to greater erosion of telomeres, which are protective caps that cover DNA strands. As our telomeres become worn, we are exposed to more disease, and our cells age more rapidly. 
 
This may sound like grim news, but remember that humans are resilient. The earlier that we can identify a child who is experiencing ACEs, the earlier that those children and their families can be connected to services providing trauma-informed care, which can heal or even prevent the long term effects. Providing protective and positive experiences can also lessen the damage.

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The 7 C’s of resilience can help counteract early ACEs:

1) Confidence – Believing in one's own abilities.
2) Competence – Understanding one's skills and completing tasks successfully.
3) Connection – Building a support system by building connections with others.
4) Character – Demonstrating a clear sense of right and wrong.
5) Contribution – Allowing children to help others feels good and builds confidence.
6) Coping – Learning healthy coping strategies to deal with life’s ups and downs.
7) Control – Teaching children self-control and decision-making

To learn more about the 7Cs and ways to use them, see these suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

While exposure to ACEs can have devastating consequences, our brains and bodies are always in the process of changing and evolving. We can offset or even negate the effects of ACEs through nurturing and empathetic relationships with caring adults.