Mental Health

Adverse Childhood Experiences

The experiences we have in childhood affect how we cope with life as an adult. A nurturing and protective environment growing up gives us the skills and confidence to make healthy choices and cope with the challenges that come our way. But having adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have the opposite effect. They increase the risk of physical and mental health problems. 1 in 3 diagnosed mental health conditions in adulthood directly relate to ACEs.

What is an Adverse Childhood Experience?

An Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) is a stressful or traumatic event which happens in childhood and can negatively affect people into adulthood.

ACEs can include the following:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional Abuse – emotional abuse can be many things, including: ridiculing, belittling, blaming, isolating, restricting social interactions, shouting, threatening, ignoring and rejecting
  • Parental separation
  • Domestic violence – there are strong links between domestic violence and child abuse
  • Mental ill health
  • Alcohol or drug misuse

This powerful video illustrates the impact ACEs can have.

What are the impact of ACEs?

ACEs can take a huge toll on all aspects of wellbeing. Children are less able to manage emotions, form relationships and learn effectively. They may develop communication and behaviour problems. These problems impact into adulthood.

ACEs increase the risk of developing health-harming behaviours. Compared with people with no ACEs, people with four or more ACEs are:

  • 2 times more likely to binge drink and have a poor diet
  • 3 times more likely to be a smoker
  • 5 times more likely to have had sex while under 16
  • 6 times more likely to have had or caused an unplanned teenage pregnancy
  • 7 times more likely to have been involved in violence in the last year
  • 11 times more likely to have used heroin/crack or been incarcerated
How common are ACEs in the UK?

ACEs are common. In a 2014 UK study on ACEs, 47% of people experienced at least one ACE with 9% of the population having 4+ ACES (Bellis et al, 2014)

ACEs occur across society although they are far more likely to occur in isolated, poor or deprived circumstances. Social inequalities amplify the effect of ACEs and so structural inequalities need to be addressed for strategies to help combat them effectively to work. For example, low family income can be a stronger predictor of poor physical health than many of the ACE categories.

Becoming ACE aware

The FrameWorks Institute conducted research into how to increase public understanding of adverse childhood experiences.

They identified a number of communication challenges that need to be overcome:

  • help people to think beyond individual-level causes of maltreatment and adversity to see the importance of societal-level solutions
  • deepen understandings of cycles of maltreatment
  • expand people’s understanding of the effects of poverty to include other social drivers
  • help people see that addressing child maltreatment and reducing early adverse experiences is possible.
Useful resources for further learning