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

Mental Health

Talking to Young People About Their Mental Health

It’s really important to normalise conversations about mental health with our children and delegates on our Youth MHFA courses often ask:

“How do I talk to young people about their mental health?”

“What language can I use and how can I get them to open up in the first place?”  

These are really good questions and there is no one simple answer but here are a few things to keep in mind.

Time the conversation

Nobody likes to see their child upset and it’s natural to want to dive in and try to fix it.  But sitting down with them and directly asking them about their feelings may cause further distress.  Children don’t always understand what’s happening to them and they may not have the language to describe their feelings, making it difficult for them to open up.  

One thing you can try is doing a fun activity with them and then start to talk about their feelings.  This may be colouring or lego with younger children, and maybe a physical activity such as a kick about or cooking a meal with older kids.  This takes the pressure off and can help start the conversation.

Use appropriate language

Always use kind and respectful language.  Don’t let your own stress colour the conversation. Think about what you’re saying and how you would feel if another adult said that to you.

Younger children probably won’t know what anxiety is though they may describe it as a tummy ache or my back hurts.  Use very simple sentences and age appropriate language.  You could say “ok, so on a scale of 1-10, ten is when you’re really, really happy and 1 is when you’re really, really sad, where are you now?”  Then you can maybe find out what are the things making them sad and what can we do to make them happier.

Not all children like to talk, but the conversation doesn’t have to be verbal.  You could try writing notes, email or text.

And if they really don’t want to talk to you, help them find someone else they can talk to.

Encourage peer support

Self-esteem is really important for good mental health so involving them and empowering them in any decisions about their wellbeing is a great thing to do.  In adolescence, young people become more withdrawn from their parents.  It’s just part of growing up.  Kids need to make their own decisions and their peers become the most important people.

Encouraging peer support therefore can be really useful.  People of their own age who may be experiencing similar things will be able to communicate using their own language.  Let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how ‘hip’ or ‘cool’ you were when you were younger you’re a dinosaur to a teenager.

Abbie Mitchell, peer mentoring manager at Fitzrovia Youth In Action says, “This program really brings conversations about mental health and looking out for each other to life for young people.  When discussions are had between youth of a similar age, using their language, vocabulary and creativity, there is something really special about the peer support that can take place.  Young people listening to each other, relating to one another and offering empathy in a designated safe and supportive space can really make a difference to how they talk about mental health, normalising conversations about it and also supporting them to feel able to reach out and get professional help if needed.”


Fitzrovia Youth In Action run peer mentoring, education and support programs which help normalise talking about poor mental health and empower young people to be able to take action, helping others and helping themselves.

Kooth is a fantastic online counselling and self-help app which young people find a really useful source of support.

Being a parent is a wonderful thing but also a stressful experience in itself, the NSPCC are there to support parents as well as children.

Young Minds parent helpline is specifically to help parents and is a fantastic resource too.

Learn more about supporting children’s mental health.

Mental Health

The Children’s Mental Health Crisis

Children’s mental health is in sharp decline.  The number of children likely to have a mental health problem has risen by 50% in the last three years from one in nine to one in six.  That’s five children in every classroom.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has taken its toll on young people.  And an estimated quarter of a million children have struggled with the loss of their usual support mechanisms.  Not being able to see friends and family caused the most distress.

But even before the pandemic, there has been a worrying downward trend in children’s happiness.  The latest Good Childhood Report by the Children’s Society reported that an estimated 306,000 10-15 year olds in the UK are unhappy.  That’s over 76% more than ten years ago.  School life and worrying about appearance caused the most unhappiness. 

The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) follows the health and wellbeing of people born around the turn of the century.  The latest sweep of the MCS found that one in four 17 year olds had self-harmed in the last year and 7% had attempted suicide.  With numbers for young people attracted to the same or both genders much higher at 51% for self-harm and 19% for attempted suicide.

How can we support children’s mental health?

Half of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14 and three quarters by age 18.  Early support is vital, but 75% of the young people who need help don’t get it.  Waiting lists for NHS treatments are long and 34% of those referred are not accepted for treatment as their condition is not considered severe enough.  But children should not have to wait until they are at crisis point to receive help.

Things you can do:

  • If you are a parent or carer worried about a child, talk to them, listen to them and let them know you can work through any issues together.   If they don’t want to talk, try text or email.
  • Speak to your GP for advice.
  • Write to your MP and support the Young Minds Fund the Hubs campaign to increase funding for early mental health and wellbeing hubs for young people.
  • Attend a Youth Mental Health First Aid course and learn more about supporting children’s mental health.
  • Supporting someone struggling with mental health is hard, so make sure you look after yourself.  Take some time every day to do something just for you.