Ruth Clare

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

Content warning: If you have had a crap childhood this material can feel confronting (At least it was for me the first time I read it). This post covers a lot of different types of early traumatic experiences (not in depth, but it might evoke painful memories for you). It also includes some of the potential health impacts of early childhood trauma. Taken in all at once can be too much for your nervous system and you may end up feeling overwhelmed.

Check in with yourself how you are feeling and go gently, lovely human. You don’t need to know everything all at once. Little by little. Give yourself the time and space you need to heal. If you feel okay to read on, please know that there are always things you can do to support yourself to recover from childhood trauma. Be sure to reach out for help from a mental health support line or a loving friend or family member if you feel bad. Remember, you do not have to deal with your pain all alone. xxx

What are adverse childhood experiences?

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are highly stressful and potentially traumatic events that occur before you reach 18 years of age. They are traditionally understood to fall into ten broad categories of events or circumstances.

1. Physical abuse

2. Sexual abuse

3. Psychological abuse

Psychological abuse is when adults intentionally reject, belittle or demean a child’s character or competence. Examples of psychological abuse include verbal abuse such as name calling or making unkind insinuations, deliberately ignoring, rejecting, isolating or stonewalling, using threats, intimidation or hostile and threatening like door slamming and smashing objects

4. Physical neglect

This is also called failure to provide. It relates to things like having no one to protect you, feeling like you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes or having caregivers who were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctors if you needed.

5. Psychological neglect

This one is more difficult to define but it broadly relates to growing up in a family where no one seemed to feel close to each other or supported each other or look out for each other. It is often connected to feeling like no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special.

6. Witnessing domestic abuse

Witnessing violence or threats of violence or other threatening or coercively controlling behaviours toward others in your family

7. Having a caregiver or close family member who misused drugs or alcohol

This includes harmful or hazardous binge drinking or alcohol dependence and misuse or addiction to prescription or illicit drugs.

8. Having a caregiver or close family member with mental health problems

Mental health problems negatively affect a person’s thinking, emotions or behaviour. According to the American Psychological Association, mental illness “reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological or developmental processes underlying mental functioning”. These include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviours among others

9. Having a caregiver or close family member who served time in prison

When your caregiver/ close family is arrested and incarcerated and spends time in prison

10. Parental separation or divorce

This list is not absolute

Homelessness, being removed from your parents and growing up in poverty, are three things don’t even feature on the list, for a start. But there are lots of other experiences you may have had when you are little that overwhelmed your capacity to cope, and that can have a lasting negative impact on you.

Even if you had a “normal” (whatever that is!) childhood, it you didn’t experience love and secure attachment, safety and protection, appropriate boundaries, the opportunity to play, be spontaneous and express your emotions or you didn’t feel valued as the unique human beings you are, some of your core developmental needs have not been met. This will have an impact on your life.

How common are ACES?

Around 60% to 70% of adults had at least one ACE. Approximately 1 in 6 people have experienced four or more types of ACEs. Females and certain racial/ethnic minority groups are at greater risk for experiencing four or more ACEs. Children who experience ACEs are more likely to have parents who experienced ACEs.

The more ACEs the greater the likelihood of detrimental impacts
Generally speaking, the more ACEs a child is exposed to, the more likely they are to experience negative health and life consequences as result of their early experiences.

What are the consequences of ACEs?

On a physical level, the toxic (extended or prolonged) stress of ACEs can negatively affect brain development, immunity and stress-response systems.

ACEs can interfere with a child’s capacity to pay attention, make decisions and learn, which can have a negative impact on educational and employment outcomes long-term. Social outcomes are also affected, with increased probability of risky behaviours and social problems like using drugs, teenage pregnancy, violent behaviour and incarceration.

Exposure to ACEs also increases risk of developing depression and other mood and anxiety disorders as well as psychotic and personality disorders. There is also greater risk of attempted suicide.

The greater the number of ACEs a child is exposed to, the higher their risk of developing chronic illnesses and cardiovascular conditions in adulthood, such as stroke, respiratory disease, diabetes, and cancer. On average, the life expectancy for someone with an ACE score of four or more is 20 years shorter than someone who scored zero.

Please know these outcomes are not your destiny

I know. This is a lot to take in, and this information can feel frightening. But these negative impacts are absolutely not a fait accompli. Toxic stress and nervous system overwhelm are massive contributing factors to all of these conditions and there are lots of things you can do to make real, measurable and positive changes to help these. It is not hopeless, I promise. You can make a real difference to these outcomes.

Are you okay?

I wanted to check in with you for a minute to see how you are doing. Reading about ACEs can be overwhelming. Firstly, because you probably briefly re-visited some of the crappiest possible experiences you had growing up as you read along with the list. Secondly, because finding out about the potential health impacts can feel pretty bleak. Thirdly, at least for me, because it seems really mean and unfair that after having lived through all this awful crap, you then have someone dump the news that your past isn’t done with you yet and you have all these bullshit disorders and addictions and diseases to look forward to. And fourthly, if you are like me and have experienced four or more ACEs (I had eight), you have to confront the idea that you are possibly going to live twenty years less than other people, for no other reason than you had a shit childhood. Which is completely crap.

Return to the present moment

If you are feeling overwhelmed after reading about any of this, firstly I recommend immediately doing these <grounding exercises>. Seriously, they might seem simple but they have got me through some really intense moments. They help you stay in the present moment. You can’t change the past, you can’t know the future, the only time moment you have any power over is the one you are living right now.

Some other things to try

Walk barefoot on the grass. Call a friend. Hug your dog or a pillow. Write in your journal. Meditate. Do some exercise to channel your stress. Lie under a weighted blanket. Do a progressive muscle relaxation exercise. Take a gentle walk in nature. Soothe your senses. Imagine the child you were and speak gently to them, reminding them they are now safe. And don’t forget there are always free crisis counselling phonelines.

Therapy can really help

I know therapy can be expensive. I lived off a diet consisting almost entirely of soup and food I was able to eat at work when I was a waitress to be able to afford it. But it is bloody amazing if you find the right therapist.

If you have tried therapy and not had a great experience, don’t use that as a measure of the effectiveness of therapy. Therapy is awesome, but therapists are just people. Sometimes we click with them, sometimes we don’t. Also, sometimes the type of therapy a person uses isn’t right for you. You deserve support and if you keep trying you will find someone who can help you.  

You can heal your life

Healing the impact of traumas isn’t always a quick thing, but you can absolutely make changes to stop your system living permanently in fight or flight mode, as well as making different decisions about how you treat yourself and let others treat you. Our past doesn’t have to define our future.

Ruth Clare is an award-winning author, TEDx and motivational keynote speaker, professional actor, qualified scientist and authenticity, resilience and change expert who learned by necessity, first to survive, then to thrive. Ruth weaves research and hard-won lessons with powerful, relatable stories from her lived experience overcoming adversity, to help others find the courage to own the stories that are holding them back so they can rewrite their lives. With a rare knack for distilling the neuroscience and psychology of human behaviour into simple ideas and practical strategies, Ruth shows people how to embrace uncertainty, stay hopeful when times are tough and harness their potential for growth and change. Ruth’s TEDx talk, The Pain of Hiding Your True Self, has had over half a million views.