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Why do all these #ACEs affect the brain in similar ways?


Many people ask me: How is it that what we might think of as less severe or “milder” trauma (living w/ depressed or alcoholic or verbally abusive parent) can change the brain in the same way as physical or sexual abuse? WHY do all these #ACEs affect the brain in similar ways?

We know that kids who are growing up with what we might think of as more common, living room variety traumas, such as a depressed or alcoholic parent, or being chronically put down, or humiliated by a parent, or simply neglected have the same rates of adult illness as those who suffered from physical and sexual trauma.


That’s because brain does not distinguish between “severe” trauma (violence, sexual abuse) and “milder” trauma.

If a child doesn’t know when the next bad moment is coming – whether it’s being humiliated and put down for being fat or stupid or in some way not good enough, or a slap in the face -- their brain goes into a state of hyper vigilance, waiting for the next bad moment, trying to predict when it will happen.

This hyper alert state creates changes in their stress response, that lead to changes in the genes that oversee the stress response for life. That’s why common forms of childhood stress can cause just as much damage as a parent who lashes out with angry, physical beatings.

Other types of childhood adversity include, of course, community violence, poverty, bullying, bickering parents, medical trauma.

When we see ACEs in this way, we would see the stress that kids encounter on social media today as an ACE, too. It may help to account for the escalating rates of anxiety and depression we see in today’s teens.

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There is another layer to the damage of ACEs:  these kinds of experiences lead to problems in acquiring skills for emotional self regulation among the children.

Children learn emotional self regulation from birth through about age three.  It is learned via "dyadic co-regulation" -- aka being soothed by an attachment figure thousands of times until the process is internalized by the child.    If a baby is reliably mirrored, comforted, and soothed, the internal ability to SELF soothe gradually arises.  If the parent is not regulated and calm AND attentive, they will have no ability to teach self regulation to the child.

Early ACES destroy self-regulation.  The child who cannot reliably attach to their parent and who cannot expect soothing, caring behavior from them has no option.  No model to learn self regulation from.  Instead they learn self-suppression, presenting a false front, a self-critical inner voice, hyper-vigilance, etc.  These maladaptive strategies are actually ADAPTIVE in the childhood home.

Lack of self regulation can go in lots of bad directions.... drugs to self regulate, power-over-others to self regulate, sexual acting out, being isolated, etc etc etc.  

Babies need reliable, empathic care and comfort, in order to learn the right way to treat themselves in life.

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