It turns out experiencing trauma as a child is the norm, not the exception.
Sixty-four percent of children have suffered at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) in their childhood, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. ACEs can include all types of abuse, neglect and traumatic experiences that happen to children.
“There are multiple factors that occur in a child’s life that can be very traumatic, including abuse, neglect and poverty,” said Dr. Angelica Robles of Novant Health Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.“We look at various experiences within the home – losing a parent, divorce or separation of parents, if they witnessed domestic violence or neighborhood violence, if there’s mental illness in the home, or alcohol or substance abuse in the home.”
Research on ACEs and the effects is increasing, Robles said, as the medical community and researchers examine the connection to adulthood high-risk health behaviors.
As the number of ACEs that a child experiences increases, so does the risk for bad outcomes. A child facing three or four ACEs, for example, is more likely to have a negative outcome than a child experiencing just one.
“Starting in early childhood, this can lead to a child having behavioral challenges and developmental delays,” Robles said. And as the person ages, increased risky behaviors often occur.
“They may engage in risk-taking, so physical injury risks go up,” Robles said. “They may engage in substance abuse, which can lead to infection and chronic illness, including diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure. Eventually this may lead to mental illness, or a decrease in educational and occupational attainment, which means lower income, and even early death.”
How to help kids
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians regularly screen young children for circumstances (including maternal depression, parental substance abuse, poverty and community violence) that can lead to toxic stress.
If a child has experienced adversities, health care providers can help the family address the immediate threat and reduce the likelihood of it happening again. They also can make referrals to services and treatments that may mitigate the negative effects of the child’s experience.
“For those kids who have the adverse experiences, we hope that by adding protective factors into the mix, the child can develop resilience,” Robles said.
The CDC recommends several strategies that can help prevent abuse and neglect, including:
- Strengthening the household’s financial security
- Establishing family-friendly work policies (flex time, being aware of child-related absences, etc.)
- Reducing corporal punishment
- Enriching a child’s pre-school environment with family engagement
- Early childhood home visitation to help enhance parenting skills
- Enhanced primary medical care
- Treatment to lessen the harms of abuse and neglect
How to help adults
Adults who experienced ACEs as a child often continue to need help.
“We try to connect them with a mental health provider, make sure they’re plugged in with counseling,” Robles said. “If there is substance abuse or other health issues, we try to make sure that’s addressed with primary care providers and specialists.”
It’s important to make sure they’re in a good support system within their community, too, Robles said.
Robles' research on ACEs and the impact on school performance was recently published in the American Academy of Pediatrics' journal.