An ACE in the Hand of Childhood Trauma

“It is easier to build strong children than to heal broken men,” Frederick Douglass once said. Douglass spoke of a generation living in the 1800s, but the same seems to ring true today. Oprah, Christian radio, media outlets, and more all appear to have something to say about childhood trauma. Although the idea is sadly nothing new.

Much of what is known today about childhood trauma relates back to a landmark Kaiser study about the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “the original ACE Study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997 with two waves of data collection. Over 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members from Southern California receiving physical exams completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors.”

ACEs fall into three categories: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Divorced parents? That’s an ACE. A household with alcohol or prescription drug use abuse? Another ACE. They add up quickly, and individuals can discover their ACE score by taking a quick 10-question assessment, which is accessible through the following link to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children.

The ACE study has limitations, which is true of any research project. When researchers conduct a study, they have to select variables and data that they can quantify and measure. Does the ACE study measure every childhood trauma that exists? Certainly not. The researchers selected 10 traumas to measure. Therefore, it is important to realize that while the ACE assessment is an effective research-based tool for measuring trauma, it is not inclusive of every trauma that one might experience in childhood.

Trauma can also be a very vague and broad-based term, so while the ACE assessment does not quantify every trauma, it does add meaning and context to how trauma is defined. This context could be helpful to a person who does not perceive trauma as “real,” but more of a concept that is manufactured by society. Therefore, a person who thinks that life is hard and that people need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” might take a different perspective when they recognize that sexual abuse is one form of trauma or one ACE.

Trauma or ACEs experienced in childhood and teen years are linked with a higher risk of many health issues later in adult life such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, drug or alcohol dependence, cancer, liver disease, suicide attempts, and the list goes on and on. One out of every five people with seven or more ACES will attempt suicide

The more adverse childhood experience one has, the more significant likelihood that a person has of experiencing difficulties with his/her mental and physical health and overall well-being later in life. An ACE score of four or more decreases one’s life expectancy by 20 years and makes one twice as likely to die by the age of 65.

The good news is that awareness about childhood trauma can lead to proactive behaviors that promote positive childhood experiences and therefore decrease the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Strategies for creating positive childhood experiences can be found in the following CDC infographic:

Similarly, another CDC infographic shows the long-term health benefits of preventing ACEs:

Let’s take the words of Frederick Douglass to heart by building healthy children through ACE awareness and preventative measures. Additionally, for those broken men and women who are still experiencing the effects of a difficult childhood, let’s use the ACE assessment as a starting point to uncover these traumas. Then, we can leverage church, community, and healthy lifestyle practices to help repair harm and to also build hope and a future.