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How to Counteract Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma

A child’s exposure to traumatic events can cause a lifelong impact. Research shows that four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can lead to a higher risk of developing health and behavioral challenges when the child becomes an adult. These include mental illness, chronic disease, and high-risk behaviors.

The topic of ACEs and brain development has been thoroughly studied. The brain is an ever-changing structure. Its development can thrive or deteriorate depending on the environment a child lives in. Chronically unstable environments can lead to lifelong effects from early childhood adversity and toxic stress.

Fortunately, there is a powerful way to counteract the effects of ACEs on kids. Children exposed to positive childhood experiences (PCEs) enjoy healthier outcomes. Stable, supportive adults are the key to these positive experiences. They buffer children from ACEs and the lifelong consequences of trauma.

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Brain Development

The brain is constantly changing. In childhood, new cells called neurons are created at massive rates. Networks form between these neurons helping kids learn new information, patterns, and behaviors. As these connections between neurons continue to develop, pathways can also break or become slow to form as a result of toxic stress.

Childhood is the time in life when the brain is most adaptable as it develops at a high speed. For that reason, it is also the time when it is the most vulnerable. Continuous stress responses in the body can impact the brain’s development.

Brain regions that trigger a fear response become more activated by chronic adversity, giving other regions associated with higher functioning less chance to develop. This can cause impairments to logical thinking, impulse control, and memory functions.

Research on ACEs and brain development has shown that the body’s stress response can cause immense damage. Children with higher incidents of ACEs show increases in:

  • Early childhood mental health challenges
  • Poor social development
  • Chronic medical conditions

Without PCEs, early exposure to trauma often creates negative outcomes in adulthood.

The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress

Stress in and of itself is not a bad thing. Healthy stress teaches children to self-regulate and develop coping skills. Toxic stress occurs when children are exposed to adverse events frequently or on an ongoing basis. These constant disruptions can cause physiological dysregulation as the body’s stress response system is activated for prolonged periods.

Toxic stress causes a significant impact on the structure and function of the brain. Results may be learning challenges, behavioral issues, and mental health disruptions.

Reliable adult relationships can reduce or minimize the lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress.

Offsetting Adverse Childhood Experiences And the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma

The impact of ACEs has been studied for decades. We know that children who suffer from frequent adverse events are prone to social, mental, and physical ramifications.

More recently, research has been conducted regarding PCEs. It is now known that PCEs can offset ACEs and the lifelong consequences of trauma they cause.

PCEs make kids feel they have support from a trusted adult. Ideally, this is a parent that helps them navigate difficult times.

For example, let’s say a child has a parent with a substance use disorder. They may be subject to erratic outbursts and unpredictable behavior. That will trigger a stress response that is likely to reoccur, potentially daily. If alone with that parent, there is no buffer between the child and their intoxicated parent.

If there is a second parent in the household who protects the child, then they’re more likely to feel safe. The sober parent may excuse the child from the room. Or they might intervene when the intoxicated parent starts screaming. After the incident, they might assure the child that it’s not their fault. These are PCEs that may offset the adversity.

Children who experience ACEs improve with increased exposure to PCEs. The more PCEs an at-risk child has, the less they will suffer from toxic stress.

A recent study shows rates of depression decline as exposure to PCEs increases. Children with higher ACEs scores (exposure to 4 or more ACEs) responded the most positively to PCEs. This group showed nearly a 60% rate of depression with no PCEs present. As they were exposed to higher incidents of PCEs, the rates of depression declined to just over 20%.

How Organizations Can Provide Positive Childhood Experiences

PCEs are most effective coming from a parent. Unfortunately, we know that isn’t always available. Adults outside the home are the next best thing. They can also provide a buffer from the effects of adversity.

Teachers, counselors, and after-school care providers can be a critical source of stability. They can intervene when they notice behavior changes.

Of course, it’s important to report suspicions of abuse to the proper authorities. But oftentimes, ACEs don’t trigger law enforcement or social services. In these instances, the best thing child-serving organizations can do is offer consistent support. They can be available to listen to children who need to discuss their experiences. Professionals working with these children can provide a stabilizing presence.  

Tools and Resources to Help Children Cope With ACEs

One study showed that 98.1% of the children participating reported having had an ACE. That’s a sobering statistic. It suggests all professionals working with children would benefit from trauma-informed resources and training.

The only stable adult many kids encounter will be outside the home. Organizations that learn about ACEs and brain development can help mitigate the lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress.

Organizations can help create a buffer from ACEs and the lifelong consequences of trauma. The Center on Child Wellbeing and Trauma is committed to supporting organizations that work with children and families. Contact us to learn more about we can offer.