Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs for short, are often used as a measure of resilience. Those who suffer greater trauma in their childhoods are at higher risk of suffering numerous difficulties in later life. These include substance use disorder, high-risk sexual behaviors, sleep disturbances, depressive episodes and attempted suicide. One 2016 study even suggests that women who experienced greater trauma during their childhoods may find themselves at greater risk of undesired pregnancy outcomes, such as low birth weight in adult pregnancies and possible fetal mortality in adolescent pregnancies.
Interestingly enough, some of the behavioral and health issues that correlate with adverse childhood experiences do not manifest until several years later. Others, however, manifest relatively early in life. Naturally, it varies from person to person, with several factors involved. Regardless of the specifics, however, it appears more common than not that traumatic childhood experiences will result in disruptions to a person’s neural development. With strong enough support, this early dysfunction does not always result in negative coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, even in cases wherein the child initially appears resilient, the past sometimes catches up to them. In the end, the full effects of ACEs on a child’s development often remain largely unpredictable until they come to pass.
ACEs fall under a pretty wide spectrum, so not everyone may realize they suffered adverse childhood experiences. If nothing else, not all who fit the banner would prefer to describe their particular ACEs as traumatic. Nonetheless, it is beneficial for those who suffer from alcoholism or addiction to gain a better understanding of ACEs and their effects. If you can relate to the trauma—or even the sheer stress—described in the following discussion, then your childhood may have had a more lasting effect than you realized.
It’s never too late to seek help in overcoming unresolved issues from our past. We simply must learn to recognize them, first.
Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences
The most obvious examples of ACEs are childhood abuse and neglect. When we think of abuse, we might think first of physical or sexual abuse. Emotional abuse, however, can prove just as traumatic. The same applies to emotional neglect. While perhaps not as deadly as physical neglect, failing to show a child proper love and compassion often leaves them feeling unwanted. They grow up wondering why they weren’t good enough for the people who were supposed to love them unconditionally. According to Dr. Jonice Webb, emotional neglect may be the most overlooked of all the above ACEs. She writes:
“Emotional neglect is the white space in the family picture; the background rather than the foreground. It is insidious and overlooked while it does its silent damage to people’s lives.”
Another clear case of adverse childhood experiences involves the abuse of another household member. Intimate partner violence or the abuse of a sibling causes a child to feel powerless. They know that they cannot control the situation, yet still feel guilt over it.
Guilt plays a role in other adverse childhood experiences as well. Take, for instance, parental separation or divorce. Although in this case, guilt may actually be the manifestation of misdirected anger. And this same mixture of guilt and anger may also occur in ACEs such as the incarceration of a family member, or the presence of substance abuse in the household. As written by Stacia Garland of Exquisite Minds:
“For many children it is very difficult to change their feeling of guilt because it has become their default position when problems occur in their family. It is difficult for the child to blame their parents because the parent is their source of correct behavior. After all, wasn’t it the parent who taught the child how to follow the correct rules? The child reasons at their developmental level, ‘How can my parent be at fault? I must have done something to cause this.’”
Garland’s point here can really apply to just about any negative experience suffered by a child. Not to say that children must live perfectly happy lives to grow up well-adjusted. Usually, the parents help children cope with these feelings of guilt, or that they aren’t good enough, by offering positive reinforcement when the child acts in a positive way. But what of parents who are abusive, neglectful, absent, abusing drugs and alcohol, or grappling with mental health disorders? They simply cannot, or sometimes will not, help the child cope with these feelings.
Even in cases of joint custody after a divorce, some parents will actually play the child’s guilt to their advantage. They care more about being the favorite parent than about helping their child cope with the divorce in a healthy way. Perhaps it doesn’t happen too often, but it happens more than you might wish to think. In fact, that statement applies pretty well to all of the adverse childhood experiences we’ve discussed.
How Common Are ACEs in America?
One of the most reliable studies on adverse childhood experiences was conducted by the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention over a three-year period in the 1990s. Not only did 28% of the 17,000 participants report experiencing physical abuse, but 21% reported sexual abuse as well. They also found that 40% of those participating in the study experienced at least two different ACEs, with 12.5% having experienced at least four.
The numbers in more recent studies aren’t much better. The CDC reports that at least 25% of children will experience abuse and neglect in their lifetimes. And according to a 2014 study by the Department of Health and Human Services, abuse and neglect were the cause of at least 1,580 child deaths in that year.
As for how many children have witnessed substance abuse, the numbers are only marginally better. A 2004 study reported that 24% of children under the age of 18 lived in the same house as at least one heavy drinker, while 13% lived under the care of an adult who abused illicit drugs. And in 2011, the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being estimated that of all children removed from their homes and placed in the child welfare system, 61% of infants and 41% of older children came from homes in which substance abuse was a factor.
Regarding children of incarcerated parents, it should come as no surprise that there are quite a few. That’s why Sesame Street added a new character in 2013 who could relate to that very demographic. A Pew Research article on the character cites data from a 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts report:
“The report found that 1.2 million inmates—more than half of the incarcerated population—were parents of children under age 18. Two-thirds of these incarcerated parents were serving time for a non-violent crime while one-third were serving time for a violent one. As a result, there are 2.7 million minor children who have a parent in jail or prison. In other words, 1-in-28 American children (3.6%) have an incarcerated parent.”
Child witnesses to domestic violence are even more common, with 5 million American children bearing witness every year. As for the other adverse childhood experiences we’ve yet to mention, those are harder to find statistics for. We can tell you that about 50% of children will see their parents divorced, and an admittedly older study suggests that about 40% of children growing up in single-parent homes have not seen their fathers in the last year. As for the children of parents with mental illness, we could not find reliable statistics. But with approximately 20% of adults experiencing mental illness every year, it’s safe to assume that a fair number of them have children.
In short, adverse childhood experiences are indeed quite common. Literally millions of children suffer ACEs every day. Meanwhile, millions more have grown up, and many of them are struggling. We know this for a fact, because we work with them on a daily basis.
Treating ACE Survivors for Substance Abuse
Of those who suffered the adverse childhood experiences discussed above, many turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Not only do experts consider ACEs a factor in underage drinking, but every ACE experienced increases the likelihood of prescription drug abuse by 62%. As for street drugs, studies show that a person is 2-4 times more likely to engage in early use for every ACE they suffered in their childhood. Considering the tendency of adverse childhood experiences to cluster within a single household, these numbers paint a grim picture.
Unfortunately, the sufferers of adverse childhood experiences require more than basic treatment. This is because studies also show a strong tendency for ACEs to result in co-occurring disorders. Exposure to childhood trauma increases the risk of lifetime depression, with the risk of suicide attempts rising between 2-5 times. Those who suffer at least half a dozen ACE exposures—which unfortunately is not as rare as it sounds—are said to be 24.36 times more likely to attempt suicide.
The prevalence of co-occurring disorders means that victims of adverse childhood experiences who engage in substance abuse must receive dual diagnosis care in order to recover. By using tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy, we can address their unresolved traumas while simultaneously focusing our efforts on their addictions. Failure to recognize the influence of their past on their present use will only leave them at greater risk of relapse.
If you or someone you know has suffered adverse childhood experiences and has grappled with addiction as a result, please contact us for help. We will help you discover the tools to get through this. Your past does not have to define your present. There is a bright future ahead of you. Open your eyes to it, and begin seeking it today.