Adverse Childhood Experiences
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) refers to frequently occurring sources of stress that children may suffer from during the first 18 years of life. If not addressed, they can cause trauma, which negatively affects brain development, socio-emotional behavior, and long-term health. ACEs generally fall into three categories: abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), neglect (emotional or physical), and household dysfunction (violence directed at an adult living in the home; a household member experiencing substance abuse; a household member experiencing mental illness; parental separation, divorce, or death; a household member who is currently or formerly incarcerated). As the number and frequency of ACEs increase, so do the negative, and sometimes lifelong, effects on children’s intellectual, emotional, and physical health.
Childhood trauma is stress that occurs when a child is overwhelmed by events or circumstances and responds with intense fear, horror, and/or helplessness. Trauma is a stress-induced state cause by a child’s perception of adverse childhood experience(s), causing intense emotional or physical harm; this often impairs executive functioning, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a child to learn, remember things, control impulses, regulate emotions, and work towards long term goals.
Resilience is the ability to overcome serious hardship. The single most important factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.
Toxic stress is excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and brain. Without the buffering care of a supportive adult, it can change children’s brains and bodies, including disrupting learning, behavior, immunity, growth, hormonal systems, immune systems, and even the way DNA is read and transcribed.
In this text, the term “trauma” refers to experiences that cause intense physical and psychological stress reactions. It can refer to a single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically and emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
Trauma-informed care is a strengths-based service delivery approach that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.
A trauma-informed approach to the delivery of behavioral health services includes an understanding of trauma and an awareness of the impact it can have across settings, services, and populations. It involves viewing trauma through an ecological and cultural lens and recognizing that context plays a significant role in how individuals perceive and process traumatic events, whether acute or chronic. A trauma-informed approach will include four key elements: (1) realizing the prevalence of trauma; (2) recognizing how trauma affects all individuals involved with the program, organization, or system, including its own workforce; (3) responding by putting this knowledge into practice; and (4) resisting retraumatization. A trauma-informed approach can be implemented in any service delivery setting (schools, courts, health care, etc).
TED Talk by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime
Pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris explains that the repeated stress of abuse, neglect and parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain. This unfolds across a lifetime, to the point where those who have experienced high levels of trauma are at triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer. Here’s how she explains it!