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Let's Have an Honest Conversation about Childhood Trauma

Warning: The content below contains information and references that may be triggers for survivors of childhood trauma. 

What are ACEs?

I first learned about ACEs a little over six months ago. I'd heard the term before and had seen some articles about it, but didn't really know exactly what it was. Short for Adverse Childhood Experiences, ACEs are traumas that include things like physical and emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness, and household violence. This inforgraphic from the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University explains this complex concept well. Research has shown that the more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely that child is to suffer from things like heart disease and diabetes, poor academic achievement, and substance abuse later in life. 


It wasn't surprising to me that childhood experiences, both positive and negative, can have an impact on future health and opportunity of a person. What was surprising to me was how much of an impact these Adverse Childhood Experiences have on people later in life. 

ACEs have been linked to: 

  • Risky health behavior like drugs and alcoholism
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Low life potential 
  • Early death

Image Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


Nature vs. Nurture

I felt conflicted after reading about ACEs the first time because, in school, I was taught that your genes predetermine health outcomes and behavior. Surely, genetics is purely about nature, right? This is actually a common misrepresentation of science. Harvard's Center on the Developing Child has an easy-to-read material explaining thisa term called epigenetics. This is "an emerging area of scientific research that shows how environmental inflienceschildren's experiencesactually affect the expression of their genes."

It turns out that the genes we inherit from our parents aren't locked, so to speak, but, in fact, genes are more like guidelines that help determine our height or the temperament we might have later in life. The research even says that the "nature vs. nurture" argument that many of us were taught is a false dichotomy. Instead of picking sides of which has a bigger effect on a child's development, we need to recognize that both have roles in developing brains. 

My own ACEs Journey

"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." Aristotle

I believe it's fair to say that knowing my ACEs score will help me improve the soundness of my own actions and judgement in my life. With that in mind, I sat down to answer the 10 questions on the ACEs quiz but found myself worrying about what my final score would be. At the end of the quiz, my score was revealed. I belonged to a smaller group of respondents whose score was more than 4. 

I know this means that I have a higher likelihood of the negative health and opportunity outcomes mentioned above, but I don't think that's the most important point of mentioning my own score. In order to help break the cycle of systemic things, we need to be more open about what it all means and who the people affected are. The CORE work done at United Way of Snohomish County is a perfect example of taking on a systemic problem (poverty) that traps children and their families for generations. Undoing that is more than just a single-issue response like handing a child an apple when they are hungry. It requires us to get to the root of the problem. Knowing your ACEs score is no different. Once you understand your score and what that means, you can take that knowledge and make better informed decisions as an adult, and if you choose to have your own family one day. 

Understanding that you can do things differently and create a different environment is not a way to villainize your family or upbringing; it is a way for you to change future outcomes. The CDC conducted research that shows nearly 66% of participants scored with at least one ACE. Now that we understand that even having just one ACE means a higher chance of a negative health or life outcome, a lot of people in our community should take on the responsibility of learning their own ACEs score so that everyone can life their lives to their fullest potential. 

Begin your ACEs Journey

Interested in learning more? NPR has a quick quiz for you to see what your own ACEs score is. Remember, as the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for these serious health outcomes. 

If you're interested in learning more about ACEs and how they can be prevented, take a look at the CDC materials they have on the topic. It's important to raise awareness about ACEs so we can promote lifelong health and wellbeing of children and their families!

Brennan Smith is the Social Media and Communications Manager at United Way of Snohomish County.