Owning Our ACEs (Part I)

Being introduced to the concept of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) may be rather mind-bending for the average parent. Truth is, learning about ACEs can be a bit mind-bending and life altering for any adult – parent, doctor, therapist, social worker, barista, teacher, law enforcement officer, truck driver, white collar or blue collar worker…anyone and everyone. ACEs help us understand experiences from childhood, potentially traumatic events, things that happened to us as children, and how they can impact our physical and mental health and how we function as adults. That includes how we function as a parent.

Dianna Wagner, Shasta County HHSA’s Children’s Branch Director, is a veteran of child welfare and highly familiar with ACEs. Wagner says, “Adverse childhood experiences effect our physical health and how we deal with stress, and those things effect how we function as a parent. Studies have shown that ACEs can lead to physical health issues like heart trouble, mental health issues, increases in risk behavior, substance use and addiction.”

So, childhood experiences may have something to do with heart health? Drug addiction? Indeed. ACEs can contribute to chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. ACEs contribute to adults struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, or relationships in general. ACEs effect the brain development of the very young. It’s critical that parents become as aware of adverse childhood experiences as the public health, education, social service, criminal justice, and medical professionals that are gaining knowledge of adverse childhood experiences and a fresh understanding of human behavior.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego identified ten types of child trauma that fit into the categories of abuse, neglect, and household (or family) dysfunction. If you’re reviewing this list of ten adverse childhood experiences for the umpteenth time, it’s likely you’re considering how to keep advancing and implementing trauma-informed training and practices in your community; how to boost movements like Strengthening Families that are crucial to helping people and nudging a cultural shift from blame and punishment to healing.

If you’re reading this list of ACEs for the first time, there’s a pretty good chance you may have one of those aha! moments, as in “Aha! That’s what happened!” Rare is the person who will shrug and recognize no adverse experiences from childhood.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)


  • Emotional Abuse
  • Physical Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse


  • Emotional Neglect
  • Physical Neglect

Household Dysfunction

  • Mother Treated Violently
  • Household Substance Abuse
  • Household Mental Illness
  • Parental Separation or Divorce
  • Incarcerated Household Member

The more ACEs a person has, the higher their risk is for a range of negative outcomes including:

  • Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Depression
  • Fetal death
  • Health-related quality of life
  • Illicit drug use
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Poor work performance
  • Financial stress
  • Risk for intimate partner violence
  • Early initiation of sexual activity
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Smoking/Early initiation of smoking
  • Suicide attempts
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Adolescent pregnancy
  • Risk for sexual violence
  • Poor academic achievement

Now that you know what the ACEs are, you may be interested in using one of the questionnaires available to help you determine your ACE score (the number of ACEs you have from childhood). Your ACE score can range from “0” (no exposure to any of the ten ACEs) to “10” (exposure to all ten ACEs). The higher the ACE score, the greater risk there is for experiencing poor physical and mental health, and negative social consequences in your adult life.

You’re probably wondering how this whole ACEs thing came about. The original Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) was conducted by Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate the association between childhood adversities such as abuse and neglect and adult health and social problems. Between 1995 and 1997, over 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patient volunteers participated in the study. About half were female, 74.8% were white, the average age was 57, and 75.2% had attended college.

The findings from the ACE Study may help many people explain conditions in their lives. Reading the ACE Study findings on Prevalence of ACEs is an intriguing trip down the rabbit hole of rich and meaningful data about people, people just like you and me and so many of our neighbors, friends, and colleagues.

A few of the ACE Study findings include:

-2/3 of study participants reported at least 1 ACE
-1 in 5 of study participants reported 3 or more ACEs
-26.9% reported substance abuse in their childhood household
-23.3% reported a parental separation or divorce
-28.3% reported physical abuse

Okay, you have some ACEs. In fact, 64% of the study participants had experienced one or more categories of adverse childhood experiences. So, now what?

Be sure to read PART II

About Deborah Peel

Writer, blogger, marketer, mother, lover of big trees and isolated mountain tops. I’m passionate about the pathway to success that First 5 Shasta is building for young children. Our grantees, partners, and caring community members all contribute to this critical early childhood investment. Together, we make the pathway strong!

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