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Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Overview

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are stressful experiences that happen before adulthood that can cause trauma. Some examples of ACEs include violence, neglect, abuse, and family mental health or substance use problems.

What are some examples of ACEs?

Here are some of the most common types of ACEs.

  • Emotional abuse. An adult insults, puts down, or swears at a child. Or an adult acts in a way that makes the child afraid they will be hurt.
  • Physical abuse. An adult hits, kicks, or physically hurts a child.
  • Sexual abuse. An adult (or older child) touches a child in a sexual way, makes a child touch them in a sexual way, or has sex (or tries to have sex) with a child.
  • Violence in the home. A child sees family violence in the home, such as emotional or physical abuse, or someone being threatened with an object.
  • Substance use or addiction issues. A household member has problems with drinking, drug use, misusing prescription medicines, or gambling.
  • Mental health problems in the home. A household member experiences depression, has other mental health issues, or has attempted or died by suicide.
  • Emotional neglect. An adult in the home doesn't make a child feel safe, protected, and cared for.
  • Physical neglect. An adult in the home doesn't make sure that a child's basic needs are met.
  • Divorce or separation of parents.
  • Having a household member go to prison.

There are other childhood experiences that can cause trauma as well. For example, things like discrimination, being bullied, and living in an unsafe environment or community can also cause stress that can have long-term effects.

What happens when you've had ACEs?

ACEs are common. Most people have at least one. But we all process things differently. How you are affected by an ACE can depend on the type of ACE and how much distress it caused, and positive experiences in your life that may have protected you from the effects of the trauma (these are called resilience factors). Examples of resilience factors include having a trusted adult in your life who loves you, a teacher who believes in you, asking for help, and listening to your feelings.

Adults who have multiple ACEs tend to have more physical and mental health problems than adults with few or no ACEs. This may be because of physical changes that can happen in a child's brain and body when they have ongoing stress. It may also be because of health-harming behaviours (like smoking or risky sexual behaviour) that are more common in people with more ACEs.

But having had ACEs doesn't mean that you will have physical or mental health problems. It just means that your risk for those things is higher. Adults with trauma are also more likely to pass on those negative effects to their families. There are things you can do to reduce the effects of ACEs and take care of your mental and physical health.

How can you reduce the effects?

The best thing you can do is to take care of your mental, emotional, and physical health. Here are some ways to do that.

  • Learn to manage and reduce your own stress.
  • See a counsellor who has experience working with trauma. A counsellor can help you:
    • Work through emotions about painful childhood experiences.
    • Learn how those experiences might still be affecting you.
    • Learn skills to help change negative thoughts, habits, or behaviours.
  • Address health-harming behaviours.
    • Quit smoking.
    • Avoid drugs and excessive drinking.
    • Get help if you have signs of a substance use disorder or behavioural addiction (like sex, shopping, gambling, gaming, food, and exercise.) Signs may include trying to stop using a substance or behaviour but being unable to, and using a substance or engaging in a behaviour even though it harms you or your relationships.
  • Build healthy relationships.
  • Make healthy habits.
    • Eat a balanced diet.
    • Get enough sleep.
    • Get regular physical activity.
    • Try mindfulness, meditation, or yoga.

Many adults have spent a lifetime learning to live with the effects of ACEs. But it's never too late to get help or to make positive changes.

Related Information

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Adaptation Date: 7/19/2023

Adapted By: Alberta Health Services

Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services

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