The Relationship Between ACEs, Mental Health, and Early Death

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been found to have a profound impact on the development of a child growing into an adult, mental health into adulthood, and even early death. Learn about these risks and their consequences, as well as how to combat them through incorporating positive childhood experiences into a child’s life to make up for any ACEs.

Key takeaways:

What are ACEs?

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that happen during a person’s childhood. Various scenarios constitute an ACE. Research shows us that having just one ACE can impact future success. However, the more ACEs a person has, the more risk they have of facing personal obstacles related to their mental and emotional development that can threaten their chances of experiencing success as adults.

Before the pandemic, a study published in 2019 reported that 61.5% of adults and 48% of children had experienced at least one ACE. Research has also found a link between ACEs and mental health issues into adulthood, as well as unhealthy relationships, which, in and of themselves, can contribute to poorer physical and mental health as an adult.

Some examples of ACEs include:

  • Having a personal experience with mental, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse;
  • Being the victim of bullying, violence, or neglect;
  • Witnessing domestic violence or violence/abuse in your community;
  • Having a traumatic, sudden death among family or friends;
  • Having a family member attempt suicide or be a victim of suicide;
  • Having a near-death experience.

While anything traumatic could be considered an ACE, these are the most serious that tend to have the largest impact on a developing child. When a child experiences six or more ACEs, research has shown that they have a tendency to experience death 20 years sooner than those who never experienced an ACE.

How do I combat the effects of ACEs?

According to research, one of the biggest factors determining whether or not an ACE will have a detrimental impact on a child's development is their personal level of resilience. Resiliency is related to a variety of factors, such as one's own unique DNA, emotional intelligence, and ability to adapt well in the face of drastic or traumatic changes and challenges. Helping your child increase their emotional intelligence is a good way to help them increase their resilience. Also, refraining from codependent behaviors as a parent and enabling behaviors so that they can develop their own sense of autonomy helps reduce the occurrence, or at least the severity, of the ACE's impact in adulthood. Research has found that there are a variety of protective factors that help protect children from the negative effects of ACEs.

What are the five protective factors?

If your child has been exposed to an ACE, this isn't the end of the world in terms of their mental and emotional development into adulthood. Various factors can be implemented into their psyches and contribute to their resilience and overall well-being in the face of an ACE. These protective factors are rooted in their upbringing with their parents and the things that are instilled in them from not only their parents but also teachers and community leaders. These protective factors include individual, family, and community factors. Many of these protective factors are rooted in parenting skills. For kids to truly thrive, it helps when their parents to provide:

  • Respectful communication;
  • Active listening skills;
  • Affection;
  • Freedom for kids to explore their environments and develop autonomy;
  • Consistent boundaries, expectations, and rules.

When parents are able to provide these qualities that help develop protective factors in their kids, they are able to:

  • Find motivation to achieve their goals;
  • Become curious in their environments;
  • Achieve academic success.

If you would like to help with the healthy development of your child, it's important to understand your child's development in relation to the following five factors:

  1. Cultural factors that impact the perception of parenting habits and their children;
  2. Using discipline to positively influence a child's behavior;
  3. Red flags of a child having developmental delays or having a need for special assistance;
  4. Anything that can either promote or burden the healthy development of a child;
  5. Mental, physical, social, emotional, and language development.

To help nurture your child's individual protective factors and for the healthy development of their brains, they need:

  • Healthy, balanced nutrition;
  • Consistent sleep cycles;
  • Regular physical activity;
  • A variety of stimulating experiences;
  • Having parents and caregivers who are present, mindful, and there for their kids mentally and emotionally.

Another way to help combat the impact of ACEs on a child's development is by incorporating positive childhood experiences into their lives.

What are positive childhood experiences?

There are seven positive childhood experiences that, if occurring on a regular, consistent basis, can help combat ACEs and increase a child's level of resiliency, emotional intelligence, positive mental health, and future success as an adult. The seven positive childhood experiences are:

  1. Feeling of support from family during trying times;
  2. Feeling comfortable and open about sharing their feelings with family and loved ones;
  3. Enjoying participating in community traditions;
  4. Feeling social support from friends;
  5. Feeling like they are protected and safe from at least one parent at home;
  6. Feeling the support from at least two trusted adults outside of the family who have a sincere concern for their well-being;
  7. Having a sense of belonging in school.

If you can help to support and facilitate as many of these positive childhood experiences as possible, your child will be far more equipped to enter into adulthood with a healthy mindset and find success as an adult if they have some of these positive childhood experiences present in their upbringings despite any ACEs they may have experienced.

If you can help your child by giving them positive childhood experiences and equipping them with as many protective factors as you can within your power, you will be setting them up for success to the best of your ability. When in doubt, you can always turn to a trusted mental health professional to step in and help reinforce some of these factors and experiences for your child and family. Having an ACE is not an early death sentence, and it can be overcome with some time and attention to help advance a child's mental and emotional development in the most beneficial ways possible.

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