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.

29 responses

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  8. I’ve been personally aware of ACE’s and the way they can adversely impact life for awhile now, like almost 70 years! In response I wrote a book that I give away for free: A Little Book of Parenting Skills (http://www.committedparent.com/ALBOPSforfreePDFpage.html)

    It’s a very small book because fewer and fewer parents are reading and because smaller has a better chance of being read. I wrote it in response to the poet Alice Walker’s claim that all family and institutional policy decisions should be made using one simple criterion: “Is it best for the children?” Feel free to download a free copy and distribute it far and wide.

  9. Jane: Thanks for your response. I think you are on to something: there is an “attention bandwidth” issue in modern society and it creates problems with supervision. People with addictions, high on drugs or alcohol are frequently mentioned in the articles I receive when their children drown or are found wandering. Then it goes poorly for the parent who is often arrested – inflicting more trauma into the family system. At least 1/3 of the daily news notices I receive involve child injury or death at the hands of (typically) a boyfriend or step-parent. I don’t usually post those or deal with those unless it involves an abused child wandering for help. Sometimes the mother will have been murdered and the survival instincts of the toddler are such that they will naturally wander for help.
    As the mother of 7 children, I have had an interest for many years regarding emotional abuse. This week at our local pool, I listened to a mother putting sunscreen on her children telling her son to “get your ass over here” so she could put sunscreen on him. He was only 3 feet away, and had been patiently waiting his turn. It broke my heart to see his face. It was so unnecessary – but she was in such a witchy mood to all her kids. So sad.
    I thought of writing a book called: The Tone in the Home.- Kind Ways to Make Simple Requests of Children. Just to stem the tide of vulgarity and brutality. Then there is the issue of those rare barbaric teachers, tenured, union-protected who are just cruel in their tone and treatment of children in the classroom. One year we had to pull our 12 year old son out of a class with a teacher who was known as a ‘screamer.’- due to retire in 2 years. That’s a whole other story but definitely a contributing factor to how children navigate the world. Best. Susan.

  10. Jane: I have started a new project, 12 years in the making, called The Toddler Awareness Project – Protocols for Parents. (find us for now on facebook. Blog is being updated.) The impetus for the project was my then 2 year old who would escape from us, at home, in public and then at the Smithsonian. When my husband suggested we buy a house with a pool in the backyard I researched not just pools safety, but pool safety failures, ie; news reports of child drownings. It led me to amass a collection, via google alerts, of thousands of stories of toddlers eloping, drowning, (doggie doors are big enablers), rolled over in driveways, climbing up to roofs, and getting hit in parking lots. “These things just happen,” people would say. Or, “People need to keep a better eye on their kids.” I saw patterns of how the situations unfolded and ways to subvert those dramas. Meanwhile, my husband was training military, law enforcement, pilots, doctors in urban survival using the principles of Situational Awareness. We compared notes and applied Situational Awareness to develop Protocols for Parents.
    I read about your site via Roy Peter Clark’s blog, and had to race over to see for myself. I’m very excited about your blog, and like many of the features. I’m trying now to configure a blog so that followers can have access to a steady stream of news stories focusing on child accidents, so their minds become trained to recognize the patterns.
    RE ACES: I’ve finished all my coursework for a MA in Counseling. I chose my internships in middle schools in our upper middle class suburban area. ACE’s would have been very useful to providing a deeper understand of the depth of the trauma. Love. Your. Project.

    Susan Reeve

    • Thanks for your kind words, Susan. And what a great project you’re developing. Maybe there’s an overlap — parents who neglect their children (intentionally or not) may be a significant group of those that have toddlers who have accidents. In other words, it’s probably difficult to have situational awareness if you’re depressed or traumatized by an event in your life. Just a thought.
      Cheers, Jane

  11. New National Data Just Released! For the first time, national data on the prevalence of ACES among US children is available. Findings from the 2011/12 National Survey of Children’s Health show that nearly a third of US youth age 12-17 have experienced two or more adverse childhood events (30.5%), with a range of 28.9% to 53.7% across US states. http://childhealthdata.org/browse/allstates?q=2614&g=448&a=4577

    Respond here or go to http://www.childhealthdata.org for more information!

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  15. Hello, my name is Martin Vivek.

    I saw that you mentioned PTSD.VA.GOV along with a few other great resources
    on this page: [http://acestoohigh.com/2012/04/10/alexithymia-emotional-neglect-capitalism-how-are-they-related-2/]

    I wanted to recommend the addition of http://www.ptsdalliance.org/ which
    offers great information, has numerous resources, and also discusses
    substance abuse treatment. Something that many other organizations fail to
    recognize yet is a very common challenge people suffering from PTSD

    Let me know your thoughts and thank you for your time

  16. Jane, I’ve been on your mailing list since early June and find your posts more useful than any others I receive or go digging for. In my opinion, the ACE project is to Wellness Psychology what continental drift was to Geology — a unified field theory. It’s very exciting to watch it unfold and gain momentum. I run a non-profit (“social profit”) that believes youth voices can do a lot to heal the world. We write a column together that is published in several newspapers reaching about a million people a week. It’s can be read at http://www.straighttalkTnT.com. I plan to mention the ACE project in next week’s column. Thank you for your work, Lauren

    • Thanks, Lauren. LOVE the column you do with teens. You have an incredible history — and are obviously putting your past to work to benefit kids. I’ll put a link to the site on ACEsTooHigh.

      I hope you join this site’s social network, ACEsConnection. Nearly 500 people have joined so far, all by word of mouth. In the next few days, we’ll post a fairly extensive resource section and begin doing some outreach.

      Your analogy of ACEs being like the theory of continental drift is so very apropos.

      Cheers, Jane

      • Jane,
        Thank you for your kind words and for posting a link to Straight Talk TnT. Yes, I was very lucky to get involved with some great teachers and guides when I was in my early 20s, EST included. My brothers, too. We truly were blessed and guided.

        Your site has opened up so many realizations and I thought I’d share one with you. My maternal grandmother immigrated from Norway at age 9. Her parents sent for her and her 4-year-old sister. They had been in America for 2 years already, leaving the kids with an uncle. So she crosses the ocean alone to Ellis Island, 4-year-old sister in tow, speaking not a word of English, only to find them and then be immediately sent away to work in a doctor’s house as a live-in maid in Maryland. She never sees her parents or sister again — nor the doctor’s family after she turned 18, as they never adopted her and she moved to San Francisco.

        She was a very proper woman, worked her way through nursing school and became a nurse, eventually Director of the Bay Area Red Cross. Probably a workaholic, not a stay-at-home mom, anyway, and this is the 1930s. But, the point of this whole story is… I mean, can you imagine her ACE score?…. here’s this robust Norwegian woman who seems to come through everything, and then, in her sixties (now my grandma), becomes completely inflamed with arthritis all through her joints. Totally swollen and hospitalized for months unable to move.

        Big mystery to medicine right? Well, it’s solved now in my mind with toxic stress causing inflammation.

        Anyway, thought I’d share my revelation!! Thank you again for your work. I will join AcesConnection. — Lauren

      • Wow. That’s an amazing story….and makes so much sense. What an amazing woman, your grandmother!! Thanks for sharing it. I look forward to seeing you on ACEsConnection!
        – Jane

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  18. Jane, this is fascinating stuff, I work with continuation junior high school students in West Sacramento and you are talking about 99% of them!

  19. Jane: You are obviously way out ahead on this issue and making a great contribution. We’re trying a little project in Mid-Michigan to try to answer the question we get from “millennials” — the 18-30 year old set who say: What can we do about this? Tough question, but there are lots of great organizations that are dedicated to reducing stress in the lives of children and families, and until we figure out how to do more, we’re simply trying to push interest in the direction of helping these organizations find more volunteers. You can find us at http://WWW.EveryChildIsYours.Org.

    • Love your site! When you publish the winning story, I’ll link to it from here so that we can spread the word about what millennials and others can do to make the world a safer place.

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