Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are negative experiences in childhood that can have long-term effects on physical and mental health. Having these experiences in childhood may increase an individual’s risk of health problems in adulthood, as well as the likelihood of being the victim or perpetrator of violence. Additionally, individuals who experience multiple ACEs have higher lifelong risk of injury, sexually transmitted infections, maternal and child health problems (including teen pregnancy, pregnancy complications, and fetal death), and involvement in sex trafficking.

ACES and Toxic Stress

The ACEs studies were some of the first to demonstrate a link between childhood experiences and adult behaviors and challenges. Researchers identify ten different adverse childhood experiences, divided into three categories:

  • Abuse, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse

  • Neglect, including physical and emotional neglect

  • Household challenges, including separation/divorce of parents, substance abuse in a parent or other close family member, seeing the mother treated violently by a romantic partner, mental illness in a parent or other close family member, and experiencing the incarceration of a household member

Being exposed to ACEs and other social determinants of health (such as limited economic resources, moving frequently, housing insecurity, and food insecurity) can lead to long-term toxic stress. Toxic stress from ACEs can negatively affect children’s brain development, immune systems, and stress-response systems, leading to decreases in attention and challenges with decision-making and learning.

Preventing ACEs

Adverse childhood experiences can be prevented. Some proven strategies for reducing the risk of ACES include:

  • Strengthening economic support to families

  • Promoting social norms that protect against violence and adversity by engaging in public education campaigns and legislative approaches to reduce corporal punishment

  • Ensuring a strong start for children (e.g., high-quality child care, preschool enrichment with family engagement, and early childhood home vistation)

  • Teaching skills to children such as social-emotional learning, safe dating, and healthy relationship skills

  • Connecting youth to caring adults and activities

  • Intervening in stressful situations early to lessen immediate and long-term harms

One way to reduce the risk of children experiencing ACEs is by raising awareness of early adversity. Raising awareness of ACEs can help:

  • Change how people think about the causes of ACEs and who could help prevent them

  • Shift the focus from individual responsibility to community solutions

  • Reduce stigma around seeking help with parenting challenges or substance misuse, depression, or suicidal thoughts

  • Promote safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments where children live, learn, and play