The Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences


Often, when people complain or air their grievances, they mention stressful things going on in their lives. We all know that, when stress is experienced for long periods of time, it harms our health. It can affect our mood, tolerance, ability to remain calm, sleep patterns and quality, sensitivity to pain, eating habits, and the list goes on. This is why reducing the amount of stress in one’s life affects its quality positively. Yet, what happens when people experience stressful situations at a young age? Does it affect their development?

In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Kaiser Permanente health care organization in California investigated this very issue in a study, from which came the term Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). They studied the connection between experiencing traumatic events in childhood and their long-term health effects in adulthood. The study used a questionnaire that listed different adverse childhood experiences, such as different forms of physical and emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and household challenges. Since this Study was published, the ACEs criteria has expanded to include violence, racism, poverty, and the list will probably keep growing as more research is conducted.

The CDC-Kaiser ACE Study realized that experiencing ACEs is very common, and the more ACEs you experienced, the more likely you would be negatively affected. Accordingly, it spurred on the interest of researchers to study the correlation of ACEs and health in more depth. In 2009, a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, entitled “Cumulative Childhood Stress and Autoimmune Diseases in Adults”, found that the higher your ACE score was, the more likely you would develop an autoimmune disease in adulthood due to a repeated activation of the stress response.

The over activation of stress response disrupts the healthy development of your neurobiology; you become wired to be hypervigilant, and always on the lookout for danger. Your alarm system goes off at any perceived threat because you have become conditioned to do so during your developmental stages. This over activation wreaks havoc on your internal organs because it was not designed for long periods of activation.

While you run the risk of developing illnesses when you enter adulthood because of experiencing ACEs, negative effects can manifest in childhood. Trauma responses can vary, but a child might experience recurring nightmares and difficulty socializing. According to Child Psychologist Hilit Kletter “reactions to trauma are sometimes misdiagnosed as symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, because kids dealing with adverse experiences may be impulsive—acting out with anger or other strong emotions”.

Children who experience trauma can find it more difficult to regulate their emotions and behaviors, especially if they do not have a caregiver in their life who mirrors healthy emotion regulation. It has also been shown in research that having at least one healthy and safe relationship with an adult can help a child grow up without developing major issues and be healthy; the best approach to ACEs prevention in the first place. If you are interested in what this prevention could look like, check out this video:

To learn more about the ACE study, check out these videos:


Dube, Shanta R., et al.Cumulative Childhood Stress and Autoimmune Diseases in Adults”. Psychosomatic Medicine. Vol. 71,2 (2009): 243–250.

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