The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on Our Children

By FCPS & Fairfax County Government
Healthy Minds
February 13, 2020

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have gained increasing attention from health, human services, and education professionals. ACEs are events that someone believes are highly negative or even traumatic. Typically, the event is one that threatened the individual’s emotional or physical safety. It is important to remember that we all experience things differently and therefore may have different beliefs about the significance of an event. In the case of ACEs, it is the individual’s belief about how negative an event is or was that matters most. ACEs may include things like being abused or neglected, witnessing violence in the home or community, living with a parent struggling with mental illness or substance addiction, exposure to natural disasters or terrorism, living in conditions of poverty, or being bullied, harassed or discriminated against. We are learning more about the impact that these experiences–and the toxic stress that they create in the brains and bodies of youth–have on outcomes like physical, behavioral, and emotional health; and academic achievement. 

A child's resilience is pivotal to the ability to cope with ACEs, both now and in the future. Resilience, or the ability to overcome challenges, is influenced by one's own skills as well as by the world around them and their relationships. That means resilience can be fostered and grow stronger! As much as we know about how being exposed to ACEs may negatively impact children, we also know that the more support youth have from caring adults to buffer their exposure, the better off they will be. 

There are things parents can do to build resilience in their children to better equip them should they be exposed to a traumatic event in the future or to help them recover if they have already had a highly negative experience. Here are some suggestions:

  • Reflect privately on your own past experiences, and about how you deal with stress. Children learn a lot about managing stress responses from their adult role models. Work together on practicing things like taking deep breaths to calm down.
  • Make time to connect with your children. Reading together, eating family meals, and enjoying time in nature or doing other activities the whole family enjoys can help everyone build resilience and get through tough times.
  • Remember that each child expresses his or her emotions differently and that how a child expresses emotions may change with age. Some children prefer to talk, while others prefer to write, draw, listen to music, or exercise. Encourage your children to find what works for them and give them time to do it.
  • Help your children learn to identify and talk about their emotions. If something scary happens, children will be better off if they have the language and skills to express themselves. Watch for signs of how your children are feeling, and ask questions that encourage them to talk through issues. If they are not ready to talk, remind your children that you care and will be there when they are ready to discuss things.
  • Being resilient relies on feeling safe, capable, and loved. Tell your children that you love and support them. Create opportunities for them to set and achieve goals to build their confidence and sense of self-worth. You are your children's most important confidence builder!

For more information, check out the Resources for Parents and Caregivers on the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network’s website.

Healthy Minds is for parents, educators, and community-based providers who are interested in supporting student mental health and wellness. It represents a collaboration between FCPS’ Office of Intervention and Prevention Services and the Fairfax County Government. SUBSCRIBE to Healthy Minds and receive a monthly digest of our most recent articles.