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  • Writer's pictureFiona Hewkin Counselling

Adverse Childhood Experience - Life After Cruelty, Abuse or Neglect

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Small boy being pointed at by an angry adult

What is an Adverse Childhood Experience?

Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) are traumatic events occurring before age 18. ACEs include all types of abuse and neglect as well as parental mental illness, substance use, divorce, prison, and domestic violence.

Children need to feel safe to thrive. The home environment needs to be stable so they can grow and develop. Trauma experienced during childhood can have a lasting impact on health, well-being and how good our mental health is. Studies have shown that there are links between experiencing Adverse Childhood Experience and negative outcomes in adulthood.

The ten widely recognised ACEs are:

  • Physical Abuse

  • Verbal Abuse

  • Sexual Abuse

  • Physical neglect

  • Emotional Neglect. Living in a household where:

  • There are adults with alcohol and drug misuse problems

  • There are adults with mental health problems

  • There is domestic abuse

  • There are adults who have spent time in prison

  • Parents have separated

These 10 ACEs are not the only possible traumas that can be experienced when we are children. There are other things such as racism, bullying, bereavement, being in a serious accident and community violence that all play a part in how the child comes to see their world either as a safe and nurturing place or somewhere to be cautious and reserved due to fear of what might happen next.

Graphic shoiwing types of Adverse Childhood Experience

The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experience

Childhood adversity can create harmful levels of stress which impact healthy brain development. This can result in long-term effects on learning, behaviour and health. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adolescence and adulthood. ACEs can also negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential.

ACEs have been found to be associated with a range of poorer health and social outcomes in adulthood and that these risks increase as the number of ACEs increase. The effects of ACEs can add up over time and affect a person throughout their life. Children who repeatedly and chronically experience adversity can suffer from toxic stress.

What is Toxic Stress?

In a normal situation, the body’s stress response activates when faced with a perceived threat and then returns to its baseline when that threat has passed. Toxic stress, on the other hand, is the near-constant activation of our body’s stress response system as a result of repeated exposure to adverse childhood experiences.

Toxic stress is what happens when adverse experiences are extreme or happening regularly. Your nervous system is like a constantly-revving car engine that’s never allowed to tick over. Eventually, that car will wear out – and our brains and bodies will, too. Toxic stress is unhealthy stress because it excessively activates the stress response system. This is said to have a “wear-and-tear” effect on the person’s body and brain.

Toxic stress happens when the brain endures repeated stress or danger then releases fight or flight hormones like adrenaline or cortisol. This internal alarm system increases heart rate and blood pressure and damages the digestive and immune system.

Toxic stress can disrupt organ, tissue and brain development. Over time this can limit a persons ability to process information, make decisions, interact with others and regulate emotions.

Emotional trauma in childhood and Adverse Childhood Experience affects the brain by creating toxic stress that eventually changes the persons stress response system, which can lead to poor mental health.

Little girl hiding her face

ACEs help us understand how certain past events that occur while we are kids can change the way we cope with stress and how this impacts our future. ACEs are not certainties, though. It’s not a given that if your childhood was difficult that you will experience mental health challenges and illness!

Many people with ACEs also experience positive life events that help reduce stress levels and show them how to cope with stress in healthy ways. If you need more support, working with a trauma focused therapist can help.

Recovering from Adverse Childhood Experience

We are taught to look at childhood through rose tinted glasses. Childhood years are “the best days of your life” For many of us they really weren’t!

We all realise that childhood influences the adults we become. Childhood is the foundation for our adult lives, but what happens if that foundation is undermined by trauma and fear? If our childhood is full of trauma that really impacts on how we see the world of adults. You can read more about trauma and its effects in my blog here.

Some people can see the link, others struggle to make the connection between and unhappy childhood and unhappiness today.

This isn’t about blame. There is little to gain by pointing the finger at our parents and saying, “it is all your fault.” Most parents don’t set out to screw up their kids, but some manage to all the same.

As adults we often go through the motions of work, study and relationships feeling as if something is missing. Like everyone else got a road map to life and you didn’t. Emotions and pain can be pushed aside or denied. Then you start wondering why everyone else seems so happy, while your head swims with worries and you slog through each day. You are not alone, and there are ways to feel better.

Working with a trauma focused therapist can be incredibly helpful. A trauma focused approach is targeted at understanding how trauma, adversity and toxic stress in childhood can affect us as adults. This approach avoids re traumatising the client and helps to change negative coping strategies into healthier, happier behaviours.

Some benefits of working with a Trauma Focused Therapist

Working with a trauma focused therapist and getting counselling for trauma can be extremely helpful if you have experienced emotional trauma in childhood, abuse or a difficult childhood/adolescence. These are some of the benefits:

  • reduced or diminished anxiety / low mood

  • reduced confusion and a greater sense of clarity on what has happened

  • a sense of freedom from the emotional pain caused the traumatic events

  • improved and deeper emotional connection in relationships

  • having healthy boundaries and a sense of being more in charge of one’s life

  • increased sense of well-being

  • greater sense of connection with your body and those around you

What Next?

We can run, but we can’t hide from our childhoods. They will always catch up and bite us. The energy we spend pretending we had a lovely, happy childhood might be better spent facing the demons and getting some therapy. See your past for what it was, a tragedy that you were not given the love and safety that you needed to grow.

For myself I didn’t want to live wondering about my past. I stopped, faced it with a loving therapist and worked hard to become the happy person I should have been as a child.

The goal in therapy is to release painful emotions from childhood while focusing on improving coping strategies, self-esteem, and most importantly self-compassion. These all help to create a healthy life where you can thrive.

People say that time heals, it might, but how much we heal depends on how much effort we put into understanding how we got here and how to change behaviours that no longer serve us. Getting counselling for trauma can help us become the people we want to be.

If any of this resonates with you and you want to start working towards a happier more balanced way of living get in touch via the contact page.

Woman stood on a jetty at sunrise with her arms out, looking happy


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