What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Why Do They Matter?

Adverse Childhood Experiences – or ACEs – are potentially stressful events or circumstances that occur during childhood or adolescence and include experiences like abuse, neglect, and having a family member with a mental illness or substance use issue. The term “ACEs” emerged from a study conducted by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente in 1997. The study assessed the number of types of childhood adversities people experienced. The remarkable findings revealed that the more cumulative childhood adversity one experiences, the higher the likelihood of experiencing a number of challenges throughout life – from physical and mental health conditions, to educational and career difficulties, and even a shortened lifespan. ACEs are prevalent and affect all communities; two-thirds of adults have at least one ACE.

When children experience intense, ongoing stress without enough buffering support, it can cause overactivation of their stress response systems, disrupting brain and body development – even interfering genetically. The effects of ACEs can be passed on from generation to generation, through both behavior and biology.

However, ACEs are not destiny. Research shows that identifying adversity early and providing evidence-based interventions can reduce negative impacts, that toxic stress is treatable, and that prevention is possible.

A Broader Understanding of Childhood Adversity

The ten ACEs included in the initial study – which encompass abuse, neglect, and household challenges – are not the only kind of childhood adversities we may face. Discrimination, poverty, racism, and community violence – among other challenges – can also create a toxic stress response and have similar lasting impacts.

Additional studies have shown that people of color, economically disadvantaged people, LGBTQ people, immigrants, refugees, and those involved in the criminal, legal or child welfare systems are disproportionately impacted by ACEs and toxic stress. Learning more about adversity beyond the ten ACEs can help make prevention and intervention efforts more equitable, inclusive, and effective.

Shifting Perspective: Young People and Adversity

Adults can help prevent adversity, and buffer and protect kids from the lasting effects of adverse experiences. We can provide opportunities for Positive Childhood Experiences that can help prevent and reduce the impact of adversity, keeping children’s brains and bodies on track for healthy development.

We can also work to make our approaches trauma-informed, integrating an awareness of the impacts of trauma and toxic stress with sensitivity and responsiveness to others’ lived experiences. When working with children and teens, this means helping them build self-awareness and compassion, acknowledging that their bodies may be making more stress hormones than average. This can look and feel like having difficulty focusing on tasks, paying attention, and learning, or struggling with self-control or self-regulation. We can assure them that they don’t need to feel shame or blame themselves for how they’re feeling or reacting. Their experiences – and the fact that their bodies stepped up to take on the challenges in their lives – are not their fault, and we can help provide support as they learn to manage their reactions and circumstances.

How Mindfulness and Yoga Support Healing

There are practices that have been scientifically proven to help rewire our brains, calm our nervous systems, and help us heal. Practices that promote mindfulness can be healing and restorative for all ages. We can use tools like meditation, mindful movement – like trauma-informed yoga, or mindful time in nature to help cultivate this state. Mindfulness boosts memory, focus, impulse control, and mood, while decreasing anxiety. Movement can help release trauma that may be stored at the cellular level in the body. Yoga for children and teens can provide these benefits, especially when practiced over time.

Trauma-Sensitive Practices for Children

Here are two simple mind-body practices that can help children manage their stress. Breathing activities help regulate the autonomic nervous system, deactivating the fight-flight-or-freeze response and preparing the brain for learning and connecting to others. Meditation can help boost awareness of emotions and nurture inner stability and resources.

“Flower and Soup” Breathing Activity:

  • Draw your favorite flower, real or imagined, on a small card. Draw a delicious bowl of soup on the other side.

  • Smell the flower (breathing in slowly through your nose), then blow on the hot soup (breathing out slowly through your mouth).

  • Repeat, and keep the card in an easy-to-access place for future use. (As an alternative, cup hands for soup, and “hold” the flower – no art supplies necessary.)

“Happy Place” Meditation for Kids or Teens:

  • Settle into a comfortable position and spend a few moments relaxing your breathing.

  • Envision a happy place in your mind, a place you want to be more than anywhere else.

  • Imagine every detail while you calmly breathe. Pay attention to sensory experiences.

  • Describe the place aloud or draw it on paper. Make your description or drawing so detailed that you’re transported, capturing your sensory experiences.

  • Remember you can visit that place in your mind (or your art!) anytime.


For More Practices

1. LEARN MORE AT NUMBERSTORY.ORG

Understanding the story behind one’s ACE history and the science behind toxic stress can empower and support people and families, which is what NumberStory.org – created by the ACE Resource Network – is designed to do. Visit NumberStory.org to learn more, find practical tools for healing and prevention, and access additional resources. Follow @MyNumberStory and #MyNumberStory #NumberStory on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

2. CHECK OUT ANY OF OUR RELATED RESOURCES BELOW.

Yoga Ed. has created free educational resources to support your understanding of trauma and practices to share with youth. Explore our free tools below.

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created by

Joy Thomas

Joy trains educators, counselors, and other service providers in integrating creative tools to support connection, empathy, growth, and healing. Joy is the Head of Research and Strategy at the ACE Resource Network.

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