By Deanna Becker
In the mid-1990’s a study in the USA called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study discovered how toxic stress in childhood leads to poor mental health outcomes and increased risk for poor physical health. Most people understand that lifestyle habits (such as poor diet or smoking) impact health however, this study emphasised how childhood experiences cause stress on our physical health in later years. Heart disease, diabetes, and lung cancer increased in individuals with high ACES scores and led to a 20-year difference in life expectancy (Burke, 2015, TED Talks). In this study toxic stress in childhood is considered parental divorce, poverty, a family member with mental illness or substance abuse, child witness to violence, an incarcerated parent, and all forms of abuse and neglect. The presence of four or more ACES were considered to increase health risk significantly. The study also reports that these ACES are preventable.
As a therapist who works with children I see evidence of the impact of ACES on children everyday. One example is a youth I worked with who appeared to be functioning well. He was achieving excellent grades, working a part time job, connecting positively with a group of friends, and making plans for post-secondary however, was struggling with overwhelming emotions, sleep issues, stomach pain, and self-harm. He found it difficult to communicate thoughts and feelings and felt ashamed of not being in control of his emotions. Several times in therapy we sat in silence because he could not find words to communicate his emotional pain. However, I knew from his auntie that he had been exposed to many of the ACES listed above. One day, trying to open up the conversation I took out a piece of paper with the ACES study risk factors. I spoke with him about what the study was about and that there were 17,000 other people in the USA who had similar adverse childhoods. As I pointed to the ACES, I asked him if he experienced this…this…this, and after each one he quietly nodded his head. He had experienced more than 6 ACES in his young life. I assured him that none of it was his fault. He cried. He understood for the first time that the current situation in his life was a result of the past and that moving forward was about finding a way to take back control. I helped him care for his emotional and physical needs. We worked on improving sleep, taking time to enjoy nature, and changing some of the shaming negative thoughts he had about himself such as being weak. Change did not happen immediately however, he began to understand slowly that the past was not his fault.
Signs of stress from childhood experiences may show up in children through their behaviours. Some may have difficulty with impulsivity, or anger, others may silently suffer and withdraw. Adults may appear to be coping on the surface but struggle with sleep, anger and resentment, substance dependence, or maintaining relationships. Many people carry shame.
Changing the impact of ACES in our lives comes from connection to others and feeling empowered to make changes for ourselves and our families for a healthier future. Sometimes meaningful and supportive connections in today’s world are difficult to find however, therapists can support the beginning of your journey toward a healthier future-both physically and emotionally.
If you would like to know more information about this topic, please click on the following link to a Ted Talks presentation.
I am a new member to the Yale Therapy team and am excited about beginning my journey to support children, youth, and families in the community. I have worked in the field for 20 years in a variety of settings including mental health, schools, community services, and group homes. To remain up-to-date with needs of clients, I regularly participate in training and have recently started incorporating yoga as an integrated therapy approach for children with complex trauma, anxiety, and high ACES scores to improve emotion regulation, mind-body connection, self-efficacy, and self-love.