What is Childhood Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences?

The experiences a person has growing up sets the foundation for what’s to come throughout the rest of their lives. 

Childhood is when their body is growing, their brain is making neural connections, their personality and social behaviors are forming, and they begin to develop their capacity to learn and care for themselves. 

So, when a child is exposed to a situation or event that overwhelms their ability to cope with what they experienced, trauma occurs. And this trauma can affect them for life. 

In fact, in the mid-1990s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente discovered that those who experience trauma in childhood, have a dramatically increased risk for seven out of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States. They also found that in high doses, childhood trauma affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even the way their DNA is read and transcribed. 

What are ACEs?

Frequent exposure to highly stressful, traumatic situations — such as abuse, poverty, food insecurity, and substance abuse in the home — can result in long-lasting, negative impacts. These types of situations are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

ACEs are threats that are so severe to a child’s wellbeing that they literally can change a person’s physiology. These experiences can be many things including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; neglect; caregiver mental illness; parental separation or divorce; and household violence.

In the CDC study, Dr. Vince Felitti at Kaiser and Dr. Bob Anda at the CDC, found that ACEs are incredibly common and that the more ACEs a person had, the more likely they would be to experience worse health outcomes. In fact, they found  that those who had experienced multiple ACEs also faced higher risks of depression, addiction, obesity, attempted suicide, mental health disorders, and other health concerns. 

What is Toxic Stress? 

When a person experiences stress, their bodies prepare them to respond to these challenges by increasing their heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones.

But, not all stress is toxic stress. 

In situations like the first day of school, an exam, or a big game, their stress response activates and then quickly returns to baseline. And if a person has support systems in their lives to help cope, more intense or longer-lasting stressors can be tolerable.

However, when a person doesn’t have a support system in place, severe or frequent exposure to certain types of stress can have a ‘toxic’ effect on the body and brain. 

In children, this toxic stress response can occur when they experience strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—various Adverse Childhood Experiences or things like community violence and racism—without adequate adult support. 

It is this toxic stress (stress that prolongs the activation of a body’s stress response system and when not properly addressed and reduced) that can lead to long-term behavior issues, health complications, and diseases that are caused by ACEs.

How Can We Prevent ACEs? 

ACEs don’t have to determine the future for a child who experiences them. They can be prevented.

Exposure alone doesn’t necessarily mean a child is affected by an experience. So, if the experience is prevented from causing toxic stress, the harm should not occur. 

But when ACEs do occur, steps can be taken to help children heal. 

Healthy, supportive relationships between parents and children or other caregivers, and a nurturing, safe and stable environment can prevent ACEs and help all children reach their full potential. 

Programs like the ones we offer here at Olive Crest, are designed to support families from all angles. These programs aim to strengthen economic supports to families, promote social norms that protect against violence and adversity, ensure a strong start for children, teach skills (like social-emotional learning, safe and healthy approaches to relationships and parenting skills), and connect youth to caring adults and activities. These initiatives along with interventions that lessen immediate and long-term harms are all methods of preventing ACEs.