Signs Your Child May Be Struggling from an Adverse Childhood Experience

Since children may have trouble talking about their feelings after experiencing trauma, it's important for parents to understand just how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) affect kids and the signs that indicate a child needs help.

When a child faces trauma, or is affected by one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), they are not always open—or even know how—to express how they feel about the experience. That's totally normal despite the fact that they are relatively common. More than 60 percent of people said they experienced at least one ACE in their lifetime, according to data samples from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But ACEs, such as abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, can be damaging. While experiencing four or more ACEs is considered most troublesome, even one instance of trauma can subject a child to a variety of physical and mental health issues without the right intervention. ACEs are credited with causing dozens of different kinds of negative health outcomes, including depression, heart problems, and reproductive issues, down the road. They can also lead to violent behaviors, smoking, alcoholism, and drugs.

With the proper support, though, children can work through their trauma. But, to offer that support, a parent must first understand how this trauma affects the body and how to detect a child is struggling despite not voicing it.

close up image of hyper-vigilant eye
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How ACES Affect the Brain

ACEs cause a rewiring of the brain that makes children more prone to risky behavior both now and in the future. This is triggered by toxic stress, a prolonged activation of the body's stress response systems. Areas of the brain like the amygdala—the center for emotions—react first, while the prefrontal cortex—the thinking and planning areas—takes a back seat. As a result, a child's responses to even trivial scenarios become reactionary, an automatic retort that does not consider formulating a thought-out reply.

As children process their trauma, there is a need to remove one's self from a threatening environment. Placing action before planning soon becomes a mental switch they may struggle to turn off. "Even a reminder of that experience can go towards that emotion area of the brain, while the thinking area kind of checks out," says Jody Manly, Ph.D., clinical director at Mt. Hope Family Center at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. "A lot of times, people just expect kids to 'get over it,' when in fact, their bodies may still be responding to that kind of survival instinct."

How ACEs Affect Behavior

In turn, parents will likely see periods where a child is acting out and engaging in destructive behavior. For some children, adverse experiences can manifest themselves as violent outbursts beyond a typical toddler tantrum. School-aged kids may start fights at recess or destroy supplies in the classroom. This behavior reflects their emotions dictating their actions, once again a result of their brain's heightened emotional state and suppressed thinking and processing.

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Other big indicators: an inability to focus and the rise of a learning disability. "Children who have been exposed to adversity have a lot of trouble concentrating because they're always ready for danger," says Joanne Klevens, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., an epidemiologist at the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC). "They're hypervigilant; they can't concentrate on one thing at a time because they have to be aware of everything just in case."

The Impact of ACEs Can Be Limited

What ultimately puts children at risk of jeopardizing their well-being long-term is a lack of a support system at home and a compilation of multiple ACEs in their lives. "What the literature on childhood adversity suggests is the effects are cumulative," says Dr. Klevens. "They tend to cluster, so when you lack the support of a nurturing, stable adult, that's when it can lead to toxic stress and effects on the body."

Building a stable and nurturing environment around a child is critical to their success, despite possible ACEs they encounter. A parent must buffer their child's exposure to trauma and create a support system where positive influence strongly outweighs negative experiences.

But parents often unknowingly expedite the coping process to feel better thinking that their kid is OK when they may not be, explains Yo Jackson, Ph.D., associate director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Pennsylvania State University. "Parents need to make sure they understand that children do not always react to adversity the same way that adults do," she says. "Listening and being attuned to the child is key for helping them so they are better able to resolve whatever they are feeling about the event."

And keep in mind, there is a wide range of outcomes for children who are exposed to ACEs, says Dr. Manly. Balancing risk factors with protective factors, though, is critical for children overcoming adverse experiences.

"Kids are not doomed because of what they might have experienced," she says. "But they need support and people listening to them in order to cope and overcome whatever they're facing."

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