Adverse Childhood Experiences: What are ACEs and how do they Affect Children, Young People and Adults?

In this blog, we describe what Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs are and how they affect children and how they can become generational and be passed down from generation to generation.

It is vital to understand that the experiences we have in our early years can go on to shape us as individuals, including the development of our physical health, mental health and wellbeing, emotions and behaviour. Some of the most impactful experiences include adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) which can negatively affect the development, physically and emotionally, of children and young people.  

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences? 

ACEs are defined as ‘traumatic or stressful experiences that can have a huge impact on children at the time and throughout their lives.’ ACEs can include anything from experiencing abuse or neglect including:  

  • Physical abuse 
  • Verbal abuse 
  • Sexual abuse 
  • Emotional abuse  
  • Neglect 

ACEs can also include growing up or living in a household where there are/is:  

  • Adults with alcohol or drug misuse or abuse problems 
  • Adults with mental health problems 
  • Domestic abuse 
  • Adults who have spent time in prison 
  • Parents that have separated 
  • The child is in care.  

There are several other types of childhood adversity that can have similar long-term effects that ACEs carry. These can include: 

  • Bereavement 
  • Bullying - physical or online  
  • Poverty 
  • Peer-on-Peer abuse 
  • Community adversities such as living in a deprived area, neighbourhood violence, gang violence etc  

The Negative Effect of ACEs 

Without adequate support, ACEs can result in toxic stress, which occurs when a child or young person experiences strong, frequent and/or prolonged childhood adversities such as those listed above. In their book Lessons Will Be Learned: Transforming Safeguarding in Education, Martin Baker and Mike Glanville (co-founders of The Safeguarding Company) cite research conducted by Public Health Wales, in which they discovered that people who reported experiencing more than four ACEs during their childhood (before the age of 18) have, subsequently, suffered as adults and were: 

  • 3 times more likely to suffer from heart disease, respiratory disease or type 2 diabetes 
  • 4 times more likely to be a heavy drinker 
  • 6 times more likely to never or rarely feel optimistic 
  • 14 times more likely to be a victim of violence (2015) 
  • 15 times more likely to commit violence 
  • 16 times more likely to use cocaine or heroin  
  • 20 times more likely to go to prison 

For those who have six or more ACEs, the statistics get even bleaker with adults being 14 times more likely to attempt suicide. 

For children, ACEs can impact their physical and mental health and development and can often be barriers for forming healthy attachments. 1 in 3 diagnosed mental health conditions in adulthood directly relate to ACEs, and other effects of ACEs in children can include: 

  • An increased risk of mental health difficulties 
  • An increased risk of developing violent behaviour or becoming a victim of violence 
  • An increase in the risk of mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress 
  • Difficulties in the ability to recognise and manage different emotions 
  • Difficulties in making and keeping healthy friendships and relationships  
  • Struggling to manage behaviour in school, which can then lead to difficulties in managing behaviour in professional settings  

Martin Baker and Mike Glanville note that those who suffer multiple ACEs as a child are far more likely to pass these experiences onto their own children when they become parents, creating a legacy of adversity and suffering that can continue to be passed from generation to generation. Dr Robert Block MD FAAP, President of the American Academy of Paediatrics believes that ‘Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.’  

Preventing ACEs 

We can take steps towards the prevention of ACEs by helping children and families before ACEs can have an effect. Different agencies can play different roles in preventing ACEs and supporting those affected by them. 

The Early Action Together ACEs Learning Network, shareshelpful information for the public, professionals and Police about the Early Action Together programme and its work in relation to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The aim is to share useful information and research about ACEs as well as best practice and resources. 

Posted Date

16th May 2022

Georgia Latief
Marketing Content Manager
Video Resource

Adverse Childhood Experiences


This film was produced for Public Health Wales and Blackburn with Darwen Local Authority

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