Over the last 15 years, research has shown that childhood trauma injures a child’s brain. It impairs the brain’s physical development and function. You can see the effects of trauma on a brain scan. The result: These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) cause kids to have a hard time learning, making friends and trusting adults. They can’t keep up in school, so they shut down or get in fights. They’re the “problem” kids. Schools suspend them. There’s lots of ways for kids to cope with their trauma. Alcohol. Drugs. Smoking. Food. Kids become daredevils and break their bones. Sleep around and get STDs. Grow up too fast and become workaholics.
All this helps numb painful memories: Years of beatings by dad, who also walloped a kid’s siblings and mom. Enduring forced sex by an uncle who visited regularly. Being rousted out of bed at 2 a.m. by a drunk mother to be yelled at for hours. These kids’ coping “drug of choice” – smoking, drinking, food, sex, work – helps them escape from the misery of feeling like failures or that, somehow, they were responsible for the trauma they experienced. It also helps them take the edge off their feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness and abandonment when our institutions further traumatize them by suspending them from school, by putting them in dysfunctional foster homes, by restraining them or putting them in isolation. Places where they ask them: “What’s wrong with you?” instead of “What happened to you?”
The double whammy of the toxic effects of severe stress on a developing brain and years of coping behaviors — which kids regard as solutions, not problems, even into adulthood — have long-term effects. When they’re adults, the trauma they experienced as a child reaches from the past to deal another cruel blow — chronic diseases that appear when they’re adults. Diabetes. Heart disease. Depression. Lung cancer. The list goes on. The diseases that cost our country billions of dollars economically, and an incalculable cost emotionally.
The more types of childhood trauma a person has, the more likely she or he will have a chronic disease. In other words, the higher your ACE score, the more problems you’ll have as an adult. The ACE Study, which began as a joint research project of Kaiser Permanente in San Diego and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at 10 different types of childhood trauma. These are the five usual suspects: physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; physical and emotional neglect. And five types of family dysfunction: a parent who’s an alcoholic or diagnosed mentally ill, a battered mother, a family member in prison, and a parent who disappears through abandonment or divorce.
The picture’s a bit grim:
- Only 33 percent of us have no ACEs.
- They rarely appear alone — if there’s one type of childhood trauma, there’s a 87 percent likelihood that there are others.
- They’re very common, even in predominately white, middle- to upper-middle class college-educated Americans.
Do you want to know your ACE score? You can take a shortened version of the ACE questionnaire at Got Your Ace Score? That section also has a Resilience Questionnaire, which points out the ways that ACEs can be counterbalanced. The section also contains some information about the genesis of the ACE Study, but here’s a good overview of the origins of the ACE Study and the parallel research into the neurobiology of toxic stress, the long-term consequences of toxic stress on the body’s organ systems, and the role of ACEs in epigenetics.
ACESTooHigh is the go-to site for background, news and information about:
- the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study,
- developmental neurobiology — how severe stress and trauma affect a child’s developing brain and nervous system
- epigenetics — how our genes turn off and on in response to our experiences and social environment.
Links to backgrounders on this research are posted on the Research section.
ACESTooHigh is also a site that covers what towns, cities, states, social service agencies and organizations, schools, the juvenile justice, criminal justice, public health and medical communities are doing to reduce the burden of ACEs for the tens of millions of people in the United States who have high ACE scores. Links to those projects and programs are posted on the ACEs in Action page. There’s also the accompanying social network community of practice called ACEsConnection, for people who work in these communities to share best and worst practices, information about upcoming events, and to set up groups who want to collaborate on projects. That network also has a rich Resource Center that you enter from the home page.
Jane Ellen Stevens is the editor of ACESTooHigh. If you want to contact me, do so at stevens.j.e.12 at gmail dot com. I welcome your tips, contributions, corrections and ideas. If you’re interested in contributing regularly or irregularly, let me know.
I’m a long-time health, science and technology journalist. Before formally launching ACEsTooHigh and ACEsConnection in January 2012, I was director of media strategies at The World Company in Lawrence, KS, where we developed a local social journalism health news site called WellCommons, which is a model for a network of local health sites I hope to establish in California.
I’m on an advisory group for ReportingonHealth.com, an online community of USC Annenberg’s California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships. Dr. Lori Dorfman of Berkeley Media Studies Group and I direct the Reporting on Violence project, which has operated out of the BMSG offices since the mid 1990s. I’ve taught at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and worked with a team to establish what is now the Knight Digital Media Center.
My background includes TV reporting for WGBH; positions as copy editor, assistant foreign-national editor, sci-tech reporter and columnist for newspapers (Boston Globe, the old San Francisco Examiner); and as a video journalist for New York Times TV. I founded a health/science/technology feature service with more than 20 client news organizations worldwide. I’ve done magazine writing (Science, Nature, National Geographic, Technology Review, Los Angeles Times Magazine); was a multimedia journalist, doing reporting for Discovery Channel’s Web site; and led teams to create TOPP.org and the Great Turtle Race of 2007. I’ve been fortunate to live in and report from Kenya and Bali, Indonesia; have been to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on the deep-sea submersible Alvin, and to the “bottom of the world” in Antarctica three times on research icebreakers.
Fellowships awarded include two from the National Science Foundation and one from the Australia Antarctic Division for travel to Antarctica, a Reynolds Journalism Fellowship at the University of Missouri, and the Knight-McCormick Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. All of them changed and enriched my life immensely, and I am grateful and so lucky to have received them.
I’m also writing a book about adverse childhood experiences, and how people, organizations and communities are implementing trauma- and resilience-informed practices to change our approach from shame, blame and punishment to understanding, solution and prevention.
Comments are welcome, as long as the discussion is civil. No cyber-trauma allowed.