ACEs Education Shatters the Myth of Childhood

  • Post category:Op-Eds

By Meg Smith.

2022 NC AHEC Schweitzer Fellow Meg Smith

Children are resilient. They’re young. They won’t even remember. 

We often hear these types of statements referenced when we learn of young children exposed to life’s incomprehensible tragedies, such as death, abuse, and neglect. While the concept of children’s resiliency may be well-intentioned, the reality is that the experiences we are exposed to in childhood have a profound impact on our health and wellbeing throughout our entire lifespan, not just in our early formative years. 

Researchers from Kaiser Permanente found that experiences of abuse, household dysfunction and neglect are alarmingly common in childhood. More than 17,000 adult participants responded to a ten item survey referencing their personal experience with these topics. For each statement where participants marked yes, they had experienced this type of abuse or household challenge within their childhood home, they received one point toward their total score. The higher the score, the more traumatic experiences the participants had lived through during childhood.

Coined as Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs, this research demonstrated that abuse, neglect, and dysfunction are not confined to select demographics or certain zip codes. Twenty-eight percent of adult participants surveyed, the majority of whom were White and from a higher socioeconomic class, had experienced physical abuse, and one in five suffered sexual trauma. More than one in four participants witnessed someone misuse drugs or alcohol within their home. 

The significance of these experiences is not confined to the parameters of childhood. Rather, research demonstrates that people with a higher number of ACEs experience worse physical and behavioral health outcomes as adults than those with lower ACE scores. Unlike our baby toys, we simply don’t outgrow the impact of early trauma.

What can be done to prevent ACEs and build resiliency? Experts tell us that a focus on community solutions, such as educational and financial resources to parents, strengthens families. Advocacy combats misinformation and dismantles stigma. Trauma-informed interventions provide critical support. Research demonstrates that a decrease in ACEs could prevent millions of cases of heart disease and depression, saving our country billions of dollars as a result.

As a current NC Schweitzer Fellow and UNC-Pembroke Masters Social Work student, I have learned the importance of sharing information to improve health outcomes for vulnerable populations. My fellowship project partners with Healthy Start at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke to educate expectant parents and caregivers of babies up to eighteen months of age on research surrounding ACEs and protective factors that strengthen wellbeing. Parents who receive support through healthy relationships, along with community resources, increase their protective factors that strengthen their own resiliency, and in turn, are more equipped to provide consistent and engaged parenting to their own children.

The next time you hear a statement that alludes to the irrelevance of childhood experiences in impacting adults’ health and happiness, consider becoming an ACEs ally and advocate for services that support those of us impacted by trauma. Share what you have learned about ACEs with your family and friends. Vote on issues that strengthen children and family initiatives. Increase the protective factors of children in your neighborhood by volunteering as a mentor. Learn your own ACE score.

Yes, children are resilient, but the experiences of their early years shape their health and wellbeing as adults. It’s up to all of us to increase the protective factors of the families within our neighborhoods. Let’s recognize that our children and adults impacted by ACEs need community support, not collective condemnation.

Meg Smith

MSW Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Class of 2023

2022-23 NC Schweitzer Fellow