Remember when you were in grade school there was always a kid(s) who continually spoke out of turn, was absent a lot, or just generally misbehaved? While it tested our patience, that kid didn’t have a choice. His behavior was likely the result of having Adverse Childhood Experiences in his home environment. It has been scientifically proven that; Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are the leading cause of health and social problems in our nation.
Instead of blaming and repeatedly punishing the child, like teachers and guidance counselors do or politicians who say, “the breakdown of the family unit is the reason for the turmoil in our society,” we need to dig deeper to better understand the reasons for their behavior.
Simply put, we need to use the research to help children and families to resolve the underlying reasons for their behavioral issues. And thanks to the long-term studies of ACEs we have the scientific proof that accounts for them and how best to resolve them.
The adverse Childhood Experiences Study was first published in 1998 and included 17,000 respondents across cultures, communities, and various economic levels. The study provides insight into how repeated trauma affects not only the individual but whole communities.
Adverse Childhood Experiences – The Study
You know the expression kids are like human sponges? That’s because their brain is rapidly developing more during childhood than at any other time of life.
Nature Vs Nurture
As parents, we wrestle with the impact we have on our kid’s behavior and personalities. When they behave well we like to take credit (attesting to our ability to properly nurture them). When they exhibit poor behavior we like to say they were born this way (nature). For the first time, the ACES study proves that the nurture portion has more impact on the brain than previously thought.
That’s because we are not born with hard-wired brains. A child’s experiences early in life are important building blocks for brain development. While genes (nature) determine the basic blueprint for the brain, environmental influences fine-tune how the brain works and determines which brain connections get used. Connections that are used often grow stronger and more permanent, whereas ones that do not get much use fade away. So we now know that a child’s environment physically changes the structure of the brain.
For example, a child that experiences severe stress will have poor development of its prefrontal cortex and the hypothalamus – the areas of the brain responsible for logical thinking and memory.
There are 3 general categories that ACES fall into:
When stress is frequent, chronic, and uncontrolled it adversely impacts a child’s brain development with the secretion of increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This part of the brain gets overly activated and the child responds to potentially dangerous situations with the “fight or flight” instinct. The child is left with high anxiety levels that can lead to lifelong issues with learning and behavior.
According to Pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, “childhood trauma isn’t something you just get over as you grow up. She 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.”
As a survivor of repeated childhood trauma, I can personally attest to the long-term effect it has had on my mental health. I’ve been able to overcome much of my adverse childhood experiences by changing my brain structure – using a combination of modalities including psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, meditation, yoga, and consistent exercise. View my personal journey here.
Dr. Burke also says, “Toxic stress during childhood can affect the processing of sound, development of verbal language, perception of social cues and facial expressions, and the ability to coordinate movement or to integrate rational ideas when in a highly emotional state.”
“Toxic stress can also affect brain interaction with body systems and lead to disease, disability, and social/relational problems throughout the life course. But childhood times are also windows of opportunity for building resilience – after all, the developing brain is sensitive to all kinds of experiences.”
Epigenetics – Passing Down the Genes
Generally, a child that grows up in a home with repeated ACEs is likely to have parents who grew up in similar adverse circumstances. It is passed down from generation to generation and is termed “Epigenetics.” Epigenetics is an emerging area of scientific research that shows how environmental influences—children’s experiences—actually affect the expression of their genes.
The epigenome can be affected by positive experiences, such as supportive relationships and opportunities for learning… or negative influences, such as environmental toxins or stressful life circumstances.
Experiences very early in life, when the brain is developing most rapidly, cause epigenetic adaptations that influence whether, when, and how genes release their
instructions for building future capacity for health, skills, and resilience. That’s why it’s crucial to provide supportive and nurturing experiences for young children in their
ACEs plus Epigenetics combine to create entire communities with health and social problems in our nation. Instead of blaming victims who exhibit these issues, we can help people who have experienced repeated trauma, neglect, poverty etc. to overcome their behavior and health problems that will also positively affect entire communities as well.
Solutions to the Leading Cause of Health and Social Problems in Our Nation
- The first step in making significant change is to educate parents, teachers, childcare providers, and pediatricians about the science and provide them with the skills to use instead of using purely punitive measures. You can’t punish trauma out of a child.
- Services such as high-quality health care for all pregnant women, infants, and toddlers, as well as support for new parents and caregivers can—quite literally—affect the chemistry around children’s genes.
- Supportive relationships and rich learning experiences generate positive epigenetic signatures that activate genetic potential and can help cure the leading cause of health and social problems in our nation.
To learn more about ACEs and ways to combat them refer to the following resources: