An increasing body of research identifies the long-term impact and health harm that can occur because of chronic stress on children in childhood. Collectively such childhood stressors are called Adverse Childhood Experiences ACEs. ACEs experiences can include physical and sexual abuse or neglect, witnessing domestic abuse and violence due to drug and alcohol problems, incarceration of a parent, severe accidents, natural and human-made disasters, violent or accidental death of a parent, sibling or important relationship figure, parental separation or divorce and exposure to terrorism, or refugee conditions. Children who experience these traumas may develop PTSD responses such as overgeneralized fear, anxiety or inappropriate cognitions, or aggressive behaviors. These children may also be experiencing the concurrent loss of a primary attachment figure. For example, a child who is removed from the home because of maternal neglect and abuse by her mother’s boyfriend is separated from siblings and placed in foster care. This child faces the trauma of both the physical abuse as well as the loss of her home and relationship with her mother and siblings. Research has shown that greater exposure to ACEs can alter how children’s brains develop and ultimately lead to their own health harming and anti-social behaviors in adulthood. Children who experience 3+ ACEs are more likely to develop health harming behaviors such as drug or alcohol problems, to be involved in violence, and to be incarcerated. Thus, these children exposed to ACEs are at increased risk of exposing their own children to ACEs. Data suggests that nearly one in eight children (12%) have had 3 or more ACEs associated with stress that could harm their health and development.
Helping families and children prevent ACEs and cope in healthy ways with ACEs when they do occur can have a major impact on the long-term emotional and health outcomes for children.