The Health Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) - Promise
The Health Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Powered by Nemours Children's Health System

The Health Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

In a perfect world, every kid would grow up in a safe, carefree environment. But many kids endure adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These traumatic events can cause psychological problems and health problems down the road.

Upsetting events can affect kids in different ways:

  • One-time events include things such as a car accident or the death of a grandparent. As scary and difficult as these can be, kids usually recover relatively quickly with healthy doses of love, support, and understanding.
  • Ongoing experiences are things that create layer upon layer of trauma, wearing down kids’ resilience. These can include living in a neighborhood with gun violence, sexual abuse, a parent who uses drugs, being bullied at school, and not having enough food.

What Problems Can ACEs Cause?

Research at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard shows that chronic adverse experiences in childhood may impair brain development. This can have a negative effect on how kids learn.

Over time, repeated exposure to ACEs can contribute to adverse health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and substance abuse in adults.

What Signs of ACEs Should I Watch for?

Sometimes, kids keep things inside. Those feelings can come out in physical ways, such as bellyaches, headaches, and nightmares.

Kids who are struggling also might have changes in behavior, such as:

  • a good student suddenly starts doing poorly in school
  • changes in appetite, eating too much or too little
  • trouble sleeping
  • acting out, becoming aggressive or defiant
  • becoming withdrawn
  • in younger kids, toileting accidents or not wanting to sleep by themselves

Look for anything that seems different to you as a parent. If your independent, confident kid suddenly becomes clingy, talk about what’s going on in his life.

How Can I Help My Child?

Help your child feel safe coming to you and telling you anything. Ask open-ended questions, such as “what happened to you?” or “is there something you’d like to talk to me about?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?” or “are you upset because this happened to you?” Be patient and understanding. Your child is working through something that was frightening or upsetting.

Don’t promise what you can’t control. If you can’t make sure that your child can get to and from school without a problem, don’t say that you’re going to make everything okay.

Talk about coping skills and be a good role model. Show that you can manage things in a positive way. It helps kids to see that they can overcome things that are hard. Help build your child’s confidence by nurturing her efforts in areas where she can excel and succeed.

Be available. Let your child know it’s okay to call mom and dad at work if he is upset. (If your child calls 10 times in an hour, there’s likely an issue you need to address immediately, and this may be a sign that your child needs extra support.)

Keep your daily routine at home as normal as possible. Home should be a safe and secure environment.

Consider telling teachers if your child has had a traumatic event. This could be a one-time event, such as a house fire, or ongoing adverse experiences, such as bullying or drug dealing in the neighborhood.

Trust your parental instincts. You’re the expert on your child.

If your child needs extra help, talk to your health care provider. He or she can recommend a behavioral health specialist with trauma-focused expertise in your area.

Kimberly Canter, PhD

About Kimberly Canter, PhD

Kimberly Canter, PhD, is a researcher at Nemours’ Center for Healthcare Delivery Science and a pediatric psychologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.