For some children, experiencing traumatic events during the formative years of childhood can have a profound impact on their life. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can cause a long-term impact on a child’s brain development, social-emotional skills, and ability to thrive as an adult.
ACEs are defined as traumatic events that occur during a child’s early years and they include a range of experiences, including physical and emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness, exposure to household or community violence, death in the family, and more. In many instances, ACEs can manifest as toxic stress in children—and functioning at this level of stress response can impair child brain development, particularly during the formative first 2,000 days of childhood.
While toxic stress and ACEs can have a long-term cumulative impact on a child, there are strategies to lessen, prevent, or even reverse the damaging toll it can take.
Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
The term ACEs comes from a landmark 1998 study from the CDC that connected childhood adversity to higher risk for poor physical, mental, behavioral, and social outcomes in life. ACEs can take on various forms, including verbal, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, physical neglect, divorce and separation of parents, physical abuse of a parent, alcohol or drug abuse by a parent, mental illness of a parent, and incarceration of a parent.
ACEs do not impact all children and demographics equally. Nationally, 61 percent of Black non-Hispanic children and 51 percent of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE compared with 40 percent of White non-Hispanic children. Income also plays a role: Studies have suggested that low socioeconomic status paired with social isolation are both major risk factors for ACEs.
With the pandemic disproportionately affecting low-income and ethnic minority populations who are already at increased risk for ACE-impacted chronic conditions, it is likely that these children will face an even greater hurdle.
In North Carolina, 23.3 percent of children have one ACE and 23.6 percent have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences. With COVID-19 as a significant source of stress for many children and families, these numbers are likely to increase.
Understanding Toxic Stress
Experiencing a number of ACEs without proper, consistent support can cause toxic stress—and while navigating stress and adversity is a necessary component of a child’s early development, some children face extreme, long-lasting, and deeply damaging stress responses and need additional support.
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, there are three types of responses to stress:
When a child lives in a state of toxic stress, their system is always in “fight or flight” mode. This results in a cascade of chemicals and reactions that negatively affect their developing body and brain. Children exposed to ACEs who experience toxic stress are also more likely to develop learning difficulties and health problems, such as asthma or sleep disturbances.
We take a preventative approach when navigating ACEs and toxic stress. By reducing sources of stress in the lives of children and families, we can help lessen and eliminate the effect of toxic stress on children in our community.
At One Place, we are dedicated to providing resources for children and families to strengthen familial relationships, develop social-emotional skills, and ultimately reduce sources of stress by providing the support system they need.
Here’s how we help: