Creating hope from adverse childhood experiences


There is no doubt that the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences study by Anda and Felitti has shifted the landscape of how we think about childhood. The ACEs study established the link between early adverse experiences and later negative outcomes. A brief overview of the key areas of early adversity included in the ACEs study are: (1) physical abuse, (2) sexual abuse, (4) physical neglect, (5) emotional neglect, (6) having a parent with a mental illness, (7) having a parent with substance abuse, (8) having an incarcerated relative, (9) experiencing domestic violence, and (10) experiencing divorce. All of these items make up the β€œ10 ACEs” with these events having a cumulative impact. The more ACEs an individual experiences, the higher the risk for negative outcomes, including a link to early death. Much of the research indicates that having four or more ACEs is the cutoff to seeing a prominent increase in negative life outcomes. These negative life outcomes include increased future negative behaviors such as smoking, alcoholism, drug use, or missed work. They also lead to increased physical health issues including severe obesity, diabetes, STDs, heart disease, cancer, stroke, COPD, and broken bones. Lastly, ACEs have been found to lead to mental health issues such as increased rates of depression and suicide attempts. 

Wow, what happens to us in childhood is important! This powerful information leads most to contemplate their own childhood and, if they have children, the experiences of their children. Thinking back to childhood can be a wonderful experience for many but for others it can create anxiety. Adding on to this anxiety for many is the emerging information of the numerous negative impacts of ACEs.  Although it is impossible to go back in time, there is hope! 

Hope lies with creating an environment where children are exposed to positive experiences and have supportive relationships. These positive experiences and relationships work as protective factors that mitigate the impact of ACEs and allow a child to endure or recover from early adversity. These positive protective factors can be inherent to the child (biological and developmental characteristics), the family, and the community.  Some specific protective factors that involve the child, family, and community include having: 

(1) a positive, close relationship with a caregiver or caring adult

(2) a parent that shows resilience to life stress

(3) a parent that uses positive parenting skills

(4) a sense of purpose that might be related to abilities, culture, or religion

(5) good development of problem solving skills and self-regulation

(6) good social connections and support within the community

Familial protective factors include creating a family that provides safe, stable, and nurturing relationships.  Actions that have been found in previous research to promote positive child development include spending time together as a family through family dinners, reading and singing to your child, playing games, and taking your child to do activities outside of the home. These out of home activities might include going for a walk or to the local library or park!  All of these activities build positive family relationships and can potentially buffer or remediate the impact of toxic stress. 

So as you are reading about ACEs in the popular media, hearing about it from your physician, or discussing it with friends – make sure you remember the HOPE. The hope is starting today to make positive choices for your family. Find ways to get help and support if you are living under extreme stress so that you and your children do not experience additional ACEs. If you are wondering what supports are out there for you and your family, call 211. 211 is a free 24-hour hotline that connects people to community services and supports. The 211 hotline is available seven days a week, 365 days a year. Also, remember to start being intentional about the time you spend with your family. You may have always heard that having family dinners and reading or singing to your child was important, but now you know just how important it is – at any age!

Remember that you have control over adversity, and you can be the positive change for you and your children. All it takes is one small change to make a big difference!

Lana Beasley, Ph.D., is a licensed Clinical Child Psychologist and an Associate Professor at Oklahoma State University, Department of Human Development and Family Science. She holds expertise in qualitative research and has been a co-investigator on several grants focused on developing, implementing, evaluating, and expanding evidence-based home visiting programs serving high-risk populations.

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