What are ACES?
About 20 years ago a medical physician got curious about what lay behind his patient’s obesity.
It was 1985, and Dr. Vincent Felitti was mystified. The physician, chief of Kaiser Permanente’s revolutionary Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, CA, couldn’t figure out why, each year for the last five years, more than half of the people in his obesity clinic dropped out. (From Aces Too High News)
In the course of exploring this with patients Felitti discovered their considerable weight gain was often sudden and dramatic, he also accidentally uncovered a link between this and being sexually abused as children. Subsequently, Felitti linked up with Anda, a former physician turned researcher, and they complied a list of questions relating to early experiences of trauma and adversity in childhood.
Over 17,000 mostly middle-class, predominantly white Americans completed the questionnaire which asks about:
Felitti and Anda were truly and deeply shocked to discover the links between the number of ‘yes’ ticks on the questionnaires (commonly called ACES) and ill-health, poor life outcomes and early death. They discovered that:
More adverse childhood experiences resulted in a higher risk of medical, mental and social problems as an adult. (From ACES Too High News)
What do ACES mean for parents and children post trauma?
Childhood is rarely without stresses regular everyday ones prepare a child’s body and brain for life. For a baby stress could be feeling hungry or alone. They will cry out to bring an adult to meet their physical or emotional need and their chemical and emotional responses will subside and they will feel comfortable again.
Children go through the same process if someone is shouting at, or around them, or they are struggling to tie their laces or they fall out with a friend they can temporarily feel overwhelmed. Depending on what they experienced as a baby, they will then become overly emotional and/or physical at this point, or they may shut down completely. Alternatively, they will display an emotion or behviours that pretty much matches the situation and then they will settle and carry on.
Domestic violence is ACE laden
A child who has grown up around domestic violence will often also experienced an ongoing threat of being physically harmed themselves, a lack of emotional ‘mattering’, parents separating or divorcing, a parent with mental illness and/or substance dependent. All tend to be present with domestic violence and will give a child an ACE score of around 6.
What does this mean for a child and those caring for them?
Firstly ACES are NOT the end of the story for anyone, least of all a child. Knowing they are present means acting and parenting based upon that knowledge. Brains can be rewired and taught to be less reactive to the trauma, as can bodies. Parenting and the all-round care a child receives has a huge part to play in this, which is good news.
As a parent it may be that you have a high ACE score so your physical or mental state may be under pressure and this needs paying attention too. Ongoing fear, especially early on, ramps the internal survival systems up.
Moving forward it is important that parenting comes from a place of calmness, connection and compassion which can be a challenge for any parent but even more so with a high ACE score as the body and brain survival systems are on high alert. Daily life can flick the emergency full alert switch indiscriminately and seemingly illogically for both parent and child which is hard to manage, and exhausting and overwhelming to live with.
What can help ACES high children and parenting?
One of the most important things to focus on is helping the body to feel some sense of safety as living in fear will have set it to be ready to fight or flight 24/7. As a family learning to breathe into the belly, know as diaphragmatic breathing can activate the ‘rest and digest’ part of our autonomic system to bring us out of a more familiar fight/flight or freeze mode.
Everyone’s body is unique and responds differently to breathing and grounding but you can check out some simple techniques I use, all day, every day. The more you and your children practice these and build your own toolkit the more you will reduce tension and reactivity in your body systems which are the root of ACES. It takes commitment and practice, practice, practice as you are rewiring the brain and changing body systems!
The next most important need for ACES is relationship. Trauma from living through ACES can make relating to others so hard as our systems are over, or under, reacting all over the place which can make being present, warm and friendly tricky to say the least. However, calming the body means there is more chance of behaving and parenting in a way which offers children good experiences of relationships. They repeatedly get a safe, accepting, compassionate response which creates experiences of safety and learning.
It is right to be hopeful as ACES can inform our onward journey with our children and with ourselves. Taking body regulation, relationship and health seriously really can make a great difference to health and life outcomes.
For information on training, consultancy and coaching Jane offers for parents and professionals impacted by the effects of ACES:
Contact – firstname.lastname@example.org