By Karen Wells | CNA Media Team
What is an “adverse childhood experience (ACE)?” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines it as “any act which harms or threatens a child.”
Events that hurt children include any form of violence – social, emotional, psychological, rape, abuse – food insecurity/hunger, family separation/ deportation, or witnessing parents being bullied. These encounters inform them that they or their families are not safe. Not feeling safe creates stress.
A child’s body reacts to stress by increasing heart rate and blood pressure, and releasing stress hormones. These physiological changes are reduced if the child is surrounded by supportive caregivers. The presence of those buffering caregivers helps children develop healthy stress responses.
That’s how children can usually manage occasional stress-producing threats. When stressful episodes occur regularly, however, the result is toxic stress. That’s the most severe stress children can encounter. Frequent, prolonged episodes of toxic stress are damaging to a child’s physical/mental health because they negatively impact brain development and learning.
Although children often survive ACEs and toxic stress, a lifetime of struggles lay ahead. As youths and later as adults, they often struggle with establishing trust and healthy lifestyle choices, and they experience mental health issues and/or chronic illnesses.
The financial cost to the community of ACEs and toxic stress is large. It is estimated that the annual cost related to them in Oregon is about $5.74 billion, according to the Task Force to Develop Prevention in Oregon.
How can you know if your child is experiencing an ACE? “Every child has a unique style of handling stress,” said Ira Karon, child and family therapy intern with Trillium Family Services at Faubion’s 3 to PhD Wellness Center.
Signs of stress can appear slowly. Parents know their children best. If you have concerns, simply ask them if everything’s OK or if something happened that they’d like to talk about.
Talking with them is your first opportunity to spot a concern. When asking, be compassionate, wait for them to share, and be respectful while listening.
The mental health team of the wellness center can help mitigate some of the effects of ACEs. It creates a safe, engaging, child-centered environment that validates children’s experiences. Families and children are not asked their immigration/citizenship status when seeking care or support services there.
If you have concerns, call the wellness center at 503.916.5908 for more information and help. Editor’s note: Karen invested considerable effort researching adverse childhood experiences and how they can affect the lifetimes of those who experience them. If you would like to delve into the subject, find her resource list at ConcordiaPDX.org/aces-resources.
Karen Wells is a retired early childhood communit y educator, health and safety trainer.