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Hope and Prevention: Tackling the Many Forms of Adverse Childhood Experiences

by Lois Neace, LSCSW, RPT-S

In the early morning hours on a cold and dreary October day, I hear yelling while tucked in my Strawberry Shortcake bed. I wake my brother, open our bed room door, and walk down the hall to hear the sound of my mom screaming at my dad: “Who is she? How could you do this? I can’t believe you would do something like this to us!”

I freeze.

Time stands still.

My mom turns and sees my brother and I. She yells at my dad “Tell them. Go ahead and tell them what you’ve done.” My dad stares blankly at all of us.

I knew right away that my life was about to change.

I watched as my mom threw my dad’s clothes at him and told him to get out – so he could be with “the other woman.” My brother got down on his knees crying and pleading for my dad to stay.

I watched my dad pry my brother off of his legs and walk out the door.

My dad drove away and never came back to our house again.

I watched as my mom ran around like a mad woman, not knowing what to do.

I watched, sitting on the floor of the bank, as my mom told the bank teller what my dad had done.

I watched as my life stood still in time.

This story and many more just like it are a glimpse into the lives of children affected by the effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood.

There was a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Kaiser Permanente HMO in California with over 17,000 adults as participants. They studied the enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. Based upon statistical analysis, the study confirmed there is a relationship of high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scores and negative outcomes. ACE is the term given to describe types of abuse, i.e. physical abuse; neglect, i.e. emotional neglect; and household challenges, i.e. parental separation or divorce that may have been experienced by individuals under the age of 18. These experiences have been linked to reduced health such as risky health behaviors, suicide attempts; chronic health conditions, i.e. cardiovascular disease; and early death. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for these negative outcomes.

The good news is there is hope. There are mitigating factors that reduce the negative outcomes for ACE scores. The wide-ranging health and social consequences of ACEs underscore the importance of preventing them before they happen. The two most important aspects to mitigate negative outcomes are relationships and environments.

What can be done about ACEs? Assuring a child has safe, stable and nurturing relationships can have a positive impact on a range of health problems and on developmental skills to assist the child in reaching their full potential. Providing networks of support are essential for the health and well-being not only for parents and caregivers but also children. Environments play a large role in preventing ACEs. Creating an atmosphere that allows families to share quality time together, discuss and resolve conflicts, and provide emotional support to one another
ensures a safe, stable and nurturing environment.

Community organizations, such as Prairie View, can play an important role by providing resources and support for parents, caretakers and children. Some of the services provided include family and individual therapy, psychosocial group, parent support and education as well as other supportive interventions. These important services are key in assisting families, caretakers and children to get the support they need and learn self-care skills and other skills to manage those experiences that arise in daily life. Interventions such as these allow the participants to identify and manage symptoms to assist in appropriate development of social and emotional skills, thus reducing the need for services later on in life.

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Research has proven that as a person repeatedly experiences trauma, the brain’s chemistry changes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue. Much of the foundational research in this area has been referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).”

ACES include:

  • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • Physical or emotional neglect
  • Experience or witness domestic violence
  • Substance misuse
  • Mental illness in the household
  • Parental separation, divorce or loss
  • Incarceration of a household member

ACES are strongly linked to:

  • Early alcohol use
  • Risk of mental health and substance use disorders
  • Tobacco use, prescription drug use
  • Suicide attempts
  • Depression
  • Sleep disturbances
  • High risk behaviors
  • Pregnancy complications

For more information about ACEs, visit www.acesconnection.com.

Lois Neace is a licensed specialist clinical social worker and registered play therapist-supervisor at Prairie View’s east Wichita office. She works with children and adolescents 0-18 years of age. Her treatment specialties include abuse and neglect issues including domestic violence or rape, anger management, anxiety, phobias, fears, social anxiety, panic or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), depression, suicidal thoughts, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), generalized wellness, learning disorders and play therapy.