Adverse Experiences

 Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Child development is rarely a straight path: While many children progress smoothly from milestone to milestone, others may race ahead in one area and develop later in others. Disability, extended illness, or developmental disorders can affect progress in a range of ways. But for some children, development is disrupted by circumstance or abuse, a group of obstacles collectively known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These include emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; parental separation or divorce; living in a household in which domestic violence occurs; living with an alcoholic or substance abuser; living with family members who suffer mental disorders; or being part of a household with an incarcerated family member.

In the classic original study of ACEs, begun in 1995, two-thirds of subjects reported having experienced at least one such event. Since then, researchers have focused on how these experiences affect not only child development and adult physical and mental health, but what the life stories of those who have endured such circumstances can teach us about resilience and positivity as well.

Another significant long-term study of ACEs, led by researchers in the U.S. and Romania, compared a group of children who had been either institutionalized or placed in foster care with a control group that remained with their birth parents. The team discovered lasting difficulties in the social and emotional health of children who had been institutionalized: They had trouble forming healthy attachments to the adults in their lives, and they had lasting cognitive and language deficits.

How do adverse experiences affect child development?

Adverse experiences can hinder a child’s social and cognitive development in a range of ways. If they cannot trust their caregivers, or learn through experience that relationships are transactional, they may struggle to develop healthy relationships with others, limiting their social, romantic, and professional potential. Research suggests children raised in rough environments are also more likely than others to engage in risky behavior, potentially leading to higher rates of drug abuse, depression, PTSD, and unintended pregnancy.

Can childhood trauma make someone age faster?

Yes. Recent research suggests that children who had experienced abuse or violence age faster, in biological terms, than children with no such history. A study of more than 100,000 people found that those who had suffered “threat-related trauma” were more likely to enter puberty early and showed signs of faster aging on a cellular level. The effect appeared to be limited to abuse: Children who had experienced poverty or neglect did not show signs of early aging. From a biological perspective, it is beneficial to be able to grow up and exit a dangerous environment.

Why are some children able to thrive even after adverse experiences?

Many people who endure rough childhoods grow up to be healthy and well-adjusted. Such individuals appear to be less prone to dwell on negative circumstances or surroundings and less likely to carry childhood stress into adulthood. Researchers are particularly interested in what such people can reveal about resiliency. One discovery is related to executive function: Survivors of ACEs may develop strong cognitive flexibility, or the ability to shift between tasks and apply learning from one situation to another and find creative solutions to problems.

Are there people who benefit from adverse childhood experiences?

No one would want to, or should have to, endure experiences like abuse, neglect, or deprivation in childhood, but those who have, research shows, may develop some skills that benefit them as adults. Children who learn to navigate an unstable parent’s mood swings, for example, may grow to become adept at reading the emotions of others and especially their nonverbal cues.

What constitutes positive childhood experiences?

Research into ACEs has also pointed to a clearer definition of a positive childhood, with insights for how parents and caregivers can foster it. Positive childhood experiences are now seen as including being able to talk with close family members about one’s feelings; feeling that one’s family has stood by them in difficult times; enjoying community traditions; feeling a sense of belonging in high school; feeling supported by friends; having at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in them; and feeling safe and protected by an adult in their home. Young people who grow up with these experiences are less likely to develop clinical depression, and more likely to have healthy relationships.

How is the effect of adverse childhood experiences measured?

The 10-question Adverse Childhood Experience (ACES) Questionnaire is used by clinicians to gauge how negative experiences might be affecting a young person and can often be a way to move away from secrecy and begin a discussion with a doctor or therapist about the stressors a child has lived with. Someone with a higher ACES score may be more emotionally reactive and sense danger in situations that don’t justify such a response.

How can people begin to recover from adverse childhood experiences?

One reason why the effects of adverse experiences are difficult to overcome is that many people are reluctant to talk about them, either during childhood or in adulthood. There may be a reluctance to revisit painful times, a continued fear of speaking out about abuse, an unwillingness to seem to blame parents, or unjustified feelings of shame or guilt. Given the powerful effect those experiences can have, though, research finds that it’s better to find help for addressing them, as early as possible, ideally before unhealthy patterns become cemented. Studies have found that a range of treatment options can help people address childhood experiences and begin to move past their effects, including journaling, mindfulness meditation, and group therapy.

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