Are you familiar with the term adverse childhood experiences? Do you know what they mean?
The term adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, is not a particularly new term, but it is becoming a much more widely used term. It describes adversities or challenges a child may face either in their home environment or their outside environment that causes them stress and trauma.
When we talk about traumas associated with ACEs, we may associate the word trauma with physical trauma, like a broken bone or a busted head. Traumas associated with ACEs can be physical traumas, but there are other sorts of trauma that come into play as well, like child abuse and neglect. “Anything traumatic that a child experiences at a particular point in their life can have a huge impact on their growth, especially when they are developing a lot and needing to form secure attachments with adults who then form the environment that they grow up and develop in,” Dr. Chad Rogers says.
So, while physical trauma does play a role in ACEs, other factors like parental mental illness, parental drug use, separation from parents due to a parent’s imprisonment or divorce also play a large part in ACEs. “We know from long-term studies,” Dr. Rogers reveals, “that ACEs have impacts on both mental health and physical health. Things like drug use, diabetes, and even cancer can all trace back to early childhood.”
I never thought about ACEs like that. I’m beginning to wonder how many of the stressors that bother me today are routed in a traumatic experience from my childhood. Let’s keep digging.
We know that ACEs manifests itself in physical ways, like drug abuse, but what are some mental ways that ACEs can manifest?
According to Dr. Rogers, we often see ACEs manifest mentally in bullying or acting out in school or on playgrounds. “When kids are traumatized, they have an instinct to survive,” he says. “We all have had that moment when we’re scared and our heart rate goes up, and we get to sweating. We start to not use our thinking brain. We just react.”
When you see a child behaving badly in school or at home, stop and reflect. They may be acting out because they’re having a bad day, a bad week, or, unfortunately, a bad life. They are reacting in survival mode. Nobody is present in their lives to help them regulate those negative emotions, bring them down, and teach them behaviors that are more appropriate when responding to stress. If you begin to realize that their acting out is caused by something else entirely, it may allow you to come to their aid and help them work through their problems in a healthier way.
Children don’t just experience ACEs in their home life or at school. Children also experience ACEs from their outside environment. External factors, such as food insecurity, cause great stress in a child’s life.
Dr. Rogers helps drive this point home: “Arkansas has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation. There are times during the month towards the end of the month where a parent’s paycheck may not be coming in or a child’s financial supports aren’t there to provide food for the family.”
Another external factor that leads to ACEs is housing insecurity. Many homes in Arkansas are unhealthy. Some homes have holes in the floors or the roofs. Some are infested with mold and cockroaches, which can make children sick. Some families may not have stable homes and may have to move from location to location, living practically homeless for a period of time. All of these things can be traumatic for a child.
Now that we know a little more about ACEs, what can we do to answer the call?
Well, AMFC answers the call with our ACEs summit. We are in our sixth year. We bring together people from many areas where ACEs may occur. “At the summit, Dr. Rogers adds, “we discuss things we can do to build resilience, which is a big factor to counteract ACEs.”
Addressing ACEs is not an easy effort. It requires a whole team of like-minded people who are all working together to ensure we are helping children deal with their stress and trauma in a healthy way. “We get a lot of questions from educators, health care providers, mental health providers, police officers, judges, foster care staff, who all work to address the impact of ACEs and create a better environment for our kids.”
This year’s summit will be virtual so that more people can attend. Derek Clark is the first speaker this year. He himself has been through a lot of childhood trauma and he will share his story about how he rose above the trauma. Through his presentation “Thinking Negatively and Expecting Positive Results from Kids,” he discusses ways that we can build resilience in our children, which starts by adults who are present in children’s lives eliminating negative thoughts they have about children who are acting out. Adults cannot have negative thoughts about kids and expect those kids to be good kids.
Over a five-week period, our summit will feature many different speakers discussing various ideas focusing on addressing ACEs now that we’re coming out of the pandemic, where many children lost their social systems, such as school and housing. The summit asks the question, what do we do now? And what do we do going forward? How do we rebuild what we lost from COVID-19 in preparation for the future?
Most meetings occur at noon every Thursday throughout September. There is one evening meeting. Visit this link to see what presentations are scheduled and what the topics are. There is a one-time $30 fee for the entire series. All sessions will be available on-demand for 90 days for those who register for the conference, so even if you can’t make the live sessions we encourage you to register.
Dr. Rogers encourages us to “think about your own ACEs and think about how they impact you so you can take better care of yourself so you can help those around you.” By reflecting on our own traumas and experiences, we can then learn how to help the children around us deal with theirs.
Follow this link for more information regarding ACEs.