Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” This idea is underscored by a groundbreaking study completed more than 20 years ago to examine the impact of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, on an individual’s lifetime health and well-being.
The ACEs Study, undertaken in 1995 by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sought to determine why some of their patients weren’t improving despite their best treatment efforts. Their discovery was remarkable, and their conclusions increasingly shape our understanding of childhood, trauma, education, and nearly all areas of public health.
The study identified 10 primary areas of adverse childhood experiences that range from physical and sexual child abuse, neglect, violence in the family, addiction, incarceration and mental illness. The study found that these experiences in childhood are linked to some of the most challenging and pervasive illnesses in adulthood, including heart and lung disease, obesity and diabetes.
As the number of ACEs experienced increases, so does the level of risk for lifelong health and social problems. If an individual has experienced four or more ACEs, the likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; depression increases by 460 percent; and suicide increases by 1,220 percent.
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For two decades the ACEs Study, and the science behind it, has sparked ongoing research into the impact of trauma and toxic stress on a child’s brain and the implications for both physical and behavioral health. In recent years with better understanding of the brain’s physiology, a variety of studies have pinpointed the impact of trauma on the developing brain.
Research from Harvard concludes: “In the short-term trauma causes an intense, biological ‘alarm state,’ including a rush of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones as well as intense fear. We stop thinking so that we can fight against or flee the dangerous situation. We have trouble processing information. In children, repeated exposure to traumatic events can overload this alarm state and begin to short-circuit healthy neural connections and disrupt the brain’s basic architecture. Ultimately, the brain adapts towards surviving this trauma. This in turn compromises core mental, emotional, and social functioning and normal, healthy development.”
The follow-up question to the ACEs Study seems obvious: Why are some adolescents and adults so resilient, sensitive and conscientious despite experiencing adversity in childhood? In fact, many adults have become emotionally stronger because of the adversity they faced as children.
The answer lies in another new field called resiliency science. The discoveries in this research are just as remarkable as the ACEs revelation. Adversity can be turned into resiliency when a child has the support of a safe environment and a lasting relationship with a caring adult.
The growing understanding and acceptance of the ACEs Study and the importance of preventing adverse childhood experiences is consistent with what Synergy Services staff has learned over the years as we have worked with our community’s most traumatized children. We also have come to understand that through caring connections with children we can help them overcome trauma, break the cycle of unhealthy behavior and go on to lead healthy, productive adult lives.
As we observe April as Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention month, let’s remember that we all have the power to be a safe and supportive connection for children, to advocate for long-term solutions and to support efforts that protect and heal children from trauma.
Dennis Meier is associate executive director of nonprofit social service agency Synergy Services and vice chair of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Healthy KC Behavioral Health Action Team.