When it comes to certain adulthood challenges, the answer may lie in what happened to people when they were children.
“The topic of trauma has certainly been more in the spotlight over the past five years with a deeper appreciation of its effects on people,” says counsellor Wayne Friesen with Recovery of Hope. “In the late 80s a doctor in the U.S. started being curious about patients who were significantly obese and he started asking questions about their childhoods.”
What the doctor noticed was that the vast majority of obese people also had significant childhood traumas.
“His findings eventually turned into something called ACES; which stands for adverse, childhood experiences. In short, the more of the 10 categories of ACES you have, the more chance of having a chronic illness, obesity, substance abuse, serious health issues like cancer and diabetes, missing significant time at work and severe mental illness.”
ACES has allowed health professionals with a clearer picture of what impacts people’s health as they approach adulthood.
“The first three categories of ACES are under abuse. If you have had physical, sexual or emotional abuse in your childhood you are at risk of developing health problems as you age. Abuse typically creates poor boundaries and lays the groundwork for what children can and should expect from relationships later in life. Like all trauma, abuse also dysregulates the nervous system which impacts a whole host of bodily systems due to the increased presence of adrenaline and cortisol as well as other stress hormones. The next two categories of ACES are physical neglect and emotional neglect. Kids are not meant to care for themselves and having to do so on a consistent basis has dire consequences.”
The next set of categories of ACES includes divorce, mental illness and substance abuse in the home.
“All three of these categories likely create some obvious challenges for kids. Safety issues, instability, and losing family connections are very difficult for kids,” says Friesen. “All three of the categories create possibilities where the attachments to caregivers are ruptured. We know that secure attachments provide so much resilience and when they are disrupted by diverse, mental health challenges and substance use it impacts the ability of kids to regulate their emotional and physical health. Substance use lays the groundwork for introducing poor coping mechanisms by adults who have trouble regulating themselves since that’s one of the functions overindulging in substances provides.”
The last two categories may seem oddly specific, according to Friesen, but they are in ACES for a reason.
“They are having a close relative in jail or witnessing your mother being physically abused. Studies have shown that these categories contribute to poor health and outcomes in adulthood. Having a relative in jail will likely show a broader environment of instability and risk. Having a mother who is physically abused has similar consequences as experiencing abuse yourself. There’s a higher possibility that you’ll be in an abusive relationship in the future either as the abuser or being abused. It sets a pattern of how people work with their emotions and what they can expect to happen to their bodies and it sets a pattern of how disagreements are settled.”
When people have multiple ACES, it’s proven to be indicative of poor health and lifestyle outcomes in adults. However, not all is lost for people who have ACES in their past.
“The more of the 10 categories you have the more likely adulthood will be very challenging. There is some good news. First, ACES are not fatalistic and there are countless stories of people with high ACES who become very successful. Second, there are also positive childhood experiences which counteract the adverse experiences. Having a loving grandparent, a caring teacher, and positive activities all have a similar impact. What is undeniable, however, is what happens to us as kids impacts our emotional, mental and physical health later in life. Yes, children are resilient but we can’t use that excuse to not do everything we can to provide resources for our kids who face very difficult environments. The price is just too high.”