What are ACES? 

what are aces

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) are defined as traumas or significant stressors experienced in childhood that can have a significant impact on later health and development. ACE’s may be a single event, or prolonged exposure to something which threatens a young person’s trust, safety, security, or bodily integrity (Young Minds, 2018). Following early research, it was recognised that events such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and domestic violence (for example) can have long term adverse effects on one’s physical and mental health (see Felitti et al., 1998). Since then, a growing body of literature has widely acknowledged that there are many different types of childhood adversity. When not appropriately supported, exposure to trauma in early development or repeated disruptions to the early parent-child attachment relationship can have a long lasting and detrimental impact on one’s health and brain development.  

How do ACE’s impact health and development?

ACE’s can repeatedly trigger a child’s fight-flight-freeze system. This is our innate “alarm system” or stress response that helps to keep us safe (the part of us that would cause us to instinctively run away if a tiger approached us!). Although adaptive in lots of situations (like the scenario with the tiger), when a child is repeatedly exposed to ACE’s, this alarm system (which is governed by our sympathetic nervous system or primitive/ “downstairs brain”) becomes hyperalert. The child learns quickly that the world, and the people around them, are unsafe and may even be harmful. To protect their survival, their bodies are constantly in a state of alarm, and their brain is constantly scanning their environment for threats.

When a child’s primitive brain is so heavily focused on surviving a scary, dangerous, and chaotic world, there is little room for learning or social and emotional development. Learning social skills or developing helpful ways to manage our emotions, for example, all require our thinking or “upstairs” brain, which is “turned off” when we feel under threat (it wouldn’t be helpful to our survival for us to stop and think “I wonder where that tiger has come from?”, we just need to run!). As a result, prolonged or repeated exposure to “toxic stress” can have a long-term impact on the child’s health and brain development. 

The Good News – Adverse Childhood Experiences and Nurturing Attachments

It is well documented that a healthy, secure attachment with a trusted adult forms a key foundation for building resilience in young people and supporting their ability to engage in positive learning experiences. Safe, stable, nurturing relationships can help to protect a child’s brain and body from the harmful effects of toxic stress and adversity. This not only helps to lower the risk of the child developing health conditions like depression, cancer, and diabetes later in life, but it also increases the likelihood that the child will go on to develop healthy ways of managing difficult emotions and solving problems.

At Meadows Psychology Service, we recognise the vital role that various staff play in supporting children and young people to thrive. That is why we provide specialist, trauma-informed support, training, and advice to staff working with children and young people across a range of childcare settings, including:

The services we offer are bespoke to ensure the support provided is led by, and responsive to, the individual needs of your service, team(s), and young people. For more information on how Meadows Psychology Service can support you, please get in touch via our online form. 

References

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American journal of preventive medicine, 14(4), 245-258.

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