If you are employed, involved, or just interested in child and family welfare and well-being, you have most likely come across the term “ACEs,” which is an acronym for Adverse Childhood Experiences.  The term originated in the groundbreaking seminal study conducted between 1995 and 1997 by the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente health care organization in California.  Over 17,000 participants were recruited to the study and have been in long-term follow up for health outcomes since.

The impact of the ACEs study stems from its core finding that there is a strong association between traumatic experiences in childhood and health and social problems across the lifespan.  The original Kaiser and CDC study asked about physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; emotional and physical neglect; exposure to household domestic violence, substance use disorder, and mental illness; parental separation or divorce; and incarceration of a household member.  The higher the number of ACEs a participant had experienced, the more likely they were to suffer from depression, alcohol use disorder, and anxiety – as well as heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, and emphysema.

The ACEs questions – which now often also solicit information about racial and economic discrimination – have only increased in salience for our work with the youngest and most vulnerable children living in largely economically disenfranchised communities. Because of the strong correlation between these specific adverse childhood experiences and negative adult health outcomes, it behooves the early childhood education, services, and advocacy fields to zero in on not only treating the symptoms of ACEs in childhood but also reducing their incidence through prevention.

So how exactly do ACEs take this massive toll on our kids’ brains and bodies?  When children experience incarceration of a loved one or physical abuse and aren’t supported by adults, their stress-response system can become over-activated, which can lead to long-term corrosion of health.  We call this process “toxic stress.”

The below graphic from the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard shows the relationship between ACEs and toxic stress.  Take a look and share with a client, colleague, family member, or advocate who needs this information: ACE



Shelby Mack, Health Project Coordinator

Robert Hagberg, LICSW