Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)

November 13, 2020

It would not surprise most people to hear that childhood trauma can have an impact across the lifespan.  What might be more shocking is the frequency of which our nation’s children experience potentially traumatic events, or adverse childhood experiences (ACE).  These experiences can range from physical or sexual abuse, to economic hardship or separation from a caregiver.

The original ACE study, conducted at Kaiser Permanente, found that just under two thirds of participants in the study reported having experienced one ACE.  Other large scale studies confirm similarly high rates of potentially traumatic experiences, ranging from around 45% to 66% of participants.

Studies on ACE also suggest that the more ACE a child is exposed to, the greater risk they are for negative health outcomes.

In a 2019 publication by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pathway between an adverse childhood experience and poor outcomes is illustrated.  This study suggests that ACE’s can lead to disrupted neurodevelopment, which can lead to social, emotional, and cognitive impairment, the adoption of health risk behaviors like smoking and drinking, which can lead to poor impacts on life potential and disease, disability and social problems, which can all lead to early death (1).

COVID-19 is a potentially traumatic event that is likely to have a large impact on our nation’s children and their mental health.  Whether COVID-19 has caused increased economic hardship, traumatic grief and loss, or led to increased rates of witnessed domestic violence at home, it is inevitable many children will need some extra support.

So what can we do to help our children?

  1. Make space to listen to you children and their feelings. While many children will inevitably be feeling increased stress, the experience of feeling alone with their feelings can often intensify the emotion.  Being able to connect with a supportive caregiver during a time of stress will help a child better regulate themselves.
  2. Limit media exposure. While many of us, child and adult alike, are probably viewing more media than in our pre-COVID routine, try to monitor and limit your child’s viewing of media, especially media related to COVID coverage.
  3. Seek out therapy if you or your child is struggling. Most therapists offer telemedicine services to decrease the risk of COVID transmission, and therapists are trained to talk to children about scary feelings.

While it is impossible to completely shield your little ones from experiencing an adverse experience, through making use of the above strategies, you may lessen the impact that adversity may have on your child.

Written by: Melissa Goldberg, PsyD


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences: Leveraging the Best Available Evidence. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.