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A Closer Look at the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs)


January 21, 2021

The ACEs Study

In the early 1990s, a physician named Vincent Felitti who worked for Kaiser Permanente in San Diego asked a patient who had lost a great deal of weight in a weight loss program why they had dropped out.

The answer given stunned Dr. Felitti.

That person and many of the other patients in the program that Dr. Felitti interviewed individually expressed that they believed the weight loss made them feel too vulnerable. Many of those he questioned also disclosed experiencing childhood sexual abuse and that they thought deep inside that the excess weight protected them from attack.

The findings of Dr. Felitti were of interest to Dr. Robert Auda who worked for the centers for disease control (CDC), and together they initiated the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

In the years between 1995-1997, a study involving 17,000 participants attempt to measure the number of adverse childhood experiences the subjects had experienced throughout their lives. They wanted to understand the relationship between ACEs and the health and life functioning of people who had experienced events in their childhood which were extremely negative.

The study was the first and largest of its kind centered around examining the impact of traumatic events experienced in childhood and their effect on the health of adults.

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When people talk about parenting education, here is what my mind comes back to... my niece grew up in homes with a great deal of abuse, neglect and instability. She played a significant care-taker role in the lives of her younger siblings, and she clearly knows how to parent. She could tell you eloquently about how bad it is for kids to grow up around parents with drug issues, with severe mental health issues, with a parent in and out of jail, with a parent being abused. And she’s bestowed these exact ACEs on her children. Information can only fix things caused by ignorance, and ignorance isn’t the only thing that causes poor parenting. Maternal home visiting programs work by providing mothers with emotional and maternal support as well as parenting information. We need to think about embracing them much tighter than we do now if we want to prevent ACEs.

Most, if not all, of the ten original aces are associated with unsupportive and harmful parenting.  This suggests that the most important lesson from the ACE Study and the one that is not being addressed is that many aces can be prevented with public health approach parenting education. 

Perhaps national parenting education campaigns akin to the smoking and seatbelts campaigns of the past.  Perhaps national multi-media messaging that teaches parenting behaviors and practices generally recognized as supporting the healthy development of children.  Agree?  Disagree?

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