Growing up involves a certain amount of stress, which serves to prepare children for emotional bumps and bruises that are bound to occur in adulthood. Children who grow up in nurturing, supportive environments are more resilient and learn to confront life’s difficulties in a healthy manner. However, problems arise when children are forced to cope with chronic stress before they are emotionally prepared to handle it. The more adverse experiences a child faces during those early years, the greater the likelihood of problems down the road. Among these adverse experiences are: emotional and physical abuse such as hitting, shouting, demeaning, ridiculing a child, chronic illness of a parent or sibling, any kind of alcohol and drug abuse, marital problems, acrimonious divorce proceedings but also affluent neglect (showering children with material goods, fulfilling every wish and whim in place of emotional closeness, support and nurture), loss of a nanny, a parent or grandparent, bullying among many others.
It comes as no surprise that negative experiences during childhood have an impact that continues throughout life, but until fairly recently, there was little scientific evidence to prove just how powerful that impact can be. Negative childhood experiences have an effect on many aspects of life and serve as an unmistakable predictor of trouble to come, including addiction and substance abuse in adolescence and adulthood.
An extensive study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente recruited 17,000 individuals over a two-year period. The study asked participants questions about their experiences with various types of abuse, neglect and household function, such as divorce and separation, mental health issues, emotional neglect, sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug and alcohol use in the household and incarceration of a parent.
Results, which continue to be tracked and studied, reveal a powerful link between adverse childhood events and future problems, including substance abuse and addiction, emotional problems, behavioral issues, learning disorders, criminal behavior, long-term health problems and a high risk of early death due to chronic illness, high risk behaviors or suicide.
Since the completion of the test, similar smaller tests have been conducted by entities such as universities and schools, individual state health departments and nonprofit organizations. For example, a research study by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University netted similar regarding results the damaging effect of toxic stress on behavior and health across the entire lifespan.
The ACE study indicates that approximately half to two-thirds of all drug and alcohol abuse and addiction can be traced back to childhood trauma, and that substance abuse occurs despite the “war on drugs” and expensive public information campaigns devised to discourage drug use. Billions of dollars spent by entitles such as child protective services, the criminal justice system and public health services are only bandages that treat the wound but have no effect on the real problem – childhood stress and trauma.
Although the studies have been largely ignored to date, the significance of the results is gaining attention. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics – an organization interested in brain development and childhood stress, is now recommending that pediatricians screen young patients for signs of toxic stress.
As knowledge increases, criminal justice programs, faith-based organizations, medical providers, domestic violence shelters, child welfare programs, schools, communities, and others are establishing trauma and stress reduction programs. An informational online source can be found here:
Trauma-informed programs, which focus on treating people with compassion, support and empathy, are finding increased traction in addiction treatment centers and rehabs.
People who suffer from addiction often find learning about ACE and their impact on themselves through their parents and on their children and further generations a major driver and motivation in becoming clean and sober and thus interrupt the cycle of adversity across generations.