Adverse Childhood Experiences and Their Lasting Effects into Adulthood


Identifying beliefs are developed in our youth, and some of these beliefs from childhood are never outgrown. These early beliefs become the pillars of our lives, some of which are beneficial and some of which are not.

One of my earliest memories is my parents struggling to quit smoking. Witnessing them beat an addiction is why I have never picked up a nicotine product. Like this positive experience, negative experiences we are subjected to as children also become ingrained. Research from the last two decades shows how deeply these negative experiences affect our psychological and physical health and development, and these Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) can leave deep grooves in our psychies.

The seven categories of the ACE Study used to understand the relationship between childhood experiences and adult illnesses are abuse (psychological, physical, and sexual) and household dysfunctionality (substance abuse, mental illness, violence towards one’s mother, and criminal behavior).  After comparing the results of an ACE Study questionnaire to a normative database, research indicates a “strong graded relationship between the breadth of exposure to abuse or household dysfunction during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults” (Felittie et al. 1998).  This study shows that someone experiencing childhood trauma is at a higher risk for medical conditions such as heart disease, depression, and obesity.

Of course we often mimic the health habits of our parents– both good and bad. Children who grow up witnessing parents who drink are much more likely to drink themselves. And the health risks associated with drinking are no secret. However it is not as simple as exposure. High levels of stress in our youth have far reaching impacts on our health. Living in an unstable and dysfunctional household creates stressful experiences, and high levels of stress hormones interfere with our developing brains and is linked to depression and anxiety. Chronic depression and anxiety is a major risk factor for obesity and addiction, and it is a slippery slope from there to higher rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Dr. Nancy Hardt summarizes the relationship “toxic stress resulting from adverse childhood experiences […] sets up pathways in the brains of traumatized children-pathways which persist into adulthood.” Hardt theorizes that those with higher levels of stress “self medicate with home remedies” such as alcohol, nicotine, and other risky behaviors.

Of course the question remains–how do we negate the impact of experiences over which we have no control? The answer, according to Hardt is resilience. “Resilience can overcome the effects of toxic stress […] our ability to develop resilience starts in early childhood and never goes away.” Resilience is often supported by finding healthy outlets in our communities, and positive experiences outside the home is enough to help overcome negative ones from within the home. Youth development programs, mentors, sports, 4H, and school can all help foster healthy habits that may be lacking in a child’s home. Additionally learning how to cope with stress and kick addictions can negate the damaging effects from early exposure. Health care, such as psychological counseling, nutritional counseling and neurofeedback services offered at the nCenter, can not only help repair physical and emotional damage, but can also help to rewire a brain and set a person up for future success.

Though we are directed down the road our childhood points us towards, we are also agents of free will and capable of forging our own path. For those exposed to high levels of ACE it is exponentially harder to divert the pathways set forth in youth to a prosperous and healthy future, but it is far from impossible.

Blog by Katlian Afton