Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing
Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing

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Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing

4 Preventing and minimising the impact of adverse childhood experiences

There is no one definition of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), although most attempts define the term as events in the early years of a child’s life that may have a negative impact in childhood and adulthood. Michael Rutter described adverse experiences as ‘the circumstances of early childhood that can cast a long shadow’ (1998, p. 16).

This is a poster containing the words ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’.
Figure 7 Adverse Childhood Experiences

The next activity asks you to consider the experiences that children may be adversely affected by.

Activity 5 Identifying adverse childhood experiences

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes
  1. List the experiences that may occur in childhood that you think could be considered as adverse.
  2. Now watch the six-minute video below, made by the Wave Trust to explain ACEs and highlight how they can impact on childhood and into adulthood. The film is animated, but it does contain some information that may be upsetting. As you watch, consider your notes alongside the experiences mentioned in the video.
Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1 What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
Skip transcript: Video 1 What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

Transcript: Video 1 What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

[SHOUTING]

[GLASS BREAKING]

BOY
My parents don't understand. All the drinking and fighting means I'm scared. I'd like a cuddle, perhaps a bedtime story. But mostly, I'd like them to stop shouting at me. And sometimes they hit me. Feeling scared every day and not feeling loved or wanted will change me for the rest of my life. Later, I'll have problems at school, problems with alcohol, and I'll get in trouble with the police. What's happening to me right now means I'm more likely to have serious health problems in middle age and die sooner than I should.

[SHOUTING]

[SIREN]

[SHOUTING]

Doctors say my life is full of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. But in my world, this means I see my dad hitting my mum. Dad's got a drinking problem, and mum's always crying, even with the tablets. I am always being shouted out and hit. After the booze and fags, there's not a lot of money for toys or clothes, or even food. I'm getting used to being scared all the time. Now I'm just angry.
Doctors say things are changing inside me. My brain isn't learning how to control my feelings properly. My body can't relax like those kids who don't have ACEs, so my body won't be able to repair itself properly when I get older, making it more likely I'll get cancer or heart disease as an adult. It hurts when my parents hit me, but the real damage is hidden, and that damage will be with me for life.

[DOOR SLAMS]

TEENAGER
I drink and smoke. They say I'm out of control, but I'm not. It's just my way of coping with my ACEs.
I've been in plenty of fights, but what's wrong with that? Kids' punches don't hurt half as much as when my dad hits me. I beat up a kid last week at school because he looked at me weird. Who cares?
I ended up with more time out of school. Learning's not for me, anyway, and the teachers don't care any more than my parents. I don't like the way anyone looks at me, except my girl. She's 16 and pregnant, just like my mum was with me.
MAN:
So this is where I've ended up. I've got diabetes, and cancer's probably on the way. I know these kill you, but I couldn't do without them. I've never had a proper job, and I've spent time inside. I hit my kids. I hit their mum, too, until she left, so my kids have grown up with ACEs. And now my daughter had her first kid. She's 16. The course of my life was set in the wrong direction a long time ago. I know where I'm heading, and suddenly I know where my kids are heading, too.

[FLATLINING]

This doesn't have to happen. A little help in childhood makes a big difference to where life takes you. When I was a baby, the nurses noticed that my mum wasn't coping and helped her and explained how important my childhood is to the rest of my life. So with a bit of help, she coped.
The police came round after next door complained about the noise from mum and dad fighting. They asked how I was feeling. I told them I was scared all the time. Mum and dad got help. The shouting got better, and the hitting stopped. I even got some bedtime stories.
I still had problems at school, but the teacher asked me about what was happening at home. I got help controlling my feelings. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough.
I'm now married with two children, and I've got a job-- most of the time. I haven't repeated the same problems with my kids. We got help when being a parent got too much. Our children are ACE free, and that means their kids stand a good chance at grown up ACE free, as well.
Almost half the people in England and Wales experienced one ACE as a child, and 1 in 10 of us suffered 4 or more ACEs. If we stop ACEs, millions of children would not become smokers or binge drinkers, and levels of violence in adults would be cut in half. Fewer ACEs in childhood also means fewer adults developing diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes in middle age.
We all need to be ACE aware. Are you? Doctors, police, nurses, teachers, firefighters, and most importantly, parents? The more you know about ACEs, the more you can help stop children growing up with ACEs in their lives.
And for those of you who have already suffered ACEs, the more you know, the more you can help yourself and others who have suffered ACEs cope.
End transcript: Video 1 What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
Video 1 What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
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Discussion

The video highlights how a combination of family circumstances and behaviours, described as ACEs, can become a ‘toxic mix’ for children. You may have found the first two minutes of the video very negative, as if it is inevitable that there will be difficult long-term consequences for children who experience adverse childhood experiences. However, the second half highlights that this is not necessarily the case. The video shows that help in early childhood can avoid negative long-term consequences, noting that it is the responsibility of all professionals – such as teachers, police and health professionals – but most of all parents, to do what they can to support children and prevent them from experiencing ACEs. A primary function of parenting is to provide protection. In addition to shielding and protecting children from ACEs, it is also important to help children to develop resilience.

The next section explores how perseverance and resilience can be promoted in childhood.

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