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Engaging with children and young people
Engaging with children and young people

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3.1 What are ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’?

SafeguardingNI (no date.) describe ACEs as follows:

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful experiences occurring during childhood that directly harm a child or affect the environment in which they live… 

ACEs can include the following:

  1. Verbal abuse
  2. Physical abuse
  3. Sexual abuse
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Parental separation
  7. Domestic violence
  8. Mental ill health
  9. Alcohol or drug misuse
  10. Household member incarcerated

While we might intuitively recognise the potentially negative impact of any one of these factors, it is worth looking at why this impact occurs and how it can be understood. As Mulcahy outlines:

Since 1998, Vincent Felitti, Robert Anda and colleagues have accumulated evidence that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) literally attack the structures of a child’s developing brain, leading to “lasting effects on brain structure and function”. This brain injury – acquired in infancy or adolescence – has serious individual and societal costs.

Basically, ACEs cause the production of toxic stress or cortisol in children which activate the “fight/flight/freeze” response and stunts the development of normal neural pathways. Childhood trauma haunts people into adulthood. Over time, the traumatized person’s “window of tolerance”, where they can comfortably “metabolize” the ups and downs of daily life, shrinks. This causes them to either remain constantly on high alert for danger, responding with anger, violence, impulsivity or defensiveness (hyperarousal) or by shutting down/disconnecting (hypoarousal) when emotionally overwhelmed or triggered.

(Mulcahy, 2018)

Since that initial research by Felitti, Anda and colleagues, multiple studies in various countries – including the nations of the UK – have shown a clear relationship between adverse childhood experiences and poor outcomes later in life,

...with the more ACEs a person suffers the greater their risks of developing health harming behaviours (e.g. substance misuse, risky sexual behaviour), suffering poor adult health (e.g. obesity, cancer, heart disease) and ultimately premature mortality...

(Hughes et al., 2016)