Have you heard of ACEs before?
ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. It refers to events experienced in childhood that have profound impacts on individuals and families. We call these experiences Trauma.
Why should we talk about childhood traumas?
Aren't they depressing?
Won't people feel triggered?
What if someone gets upset?
One of the major myths around mental health is that talking about pain makes the pain worse. One of my favorite quotes says, "Sometimes bitter memories become bittersweet when you share them with a friend." Lending voice to the suffering and silent trials of childhood lightens burdens and begins the healing process.
What are ACEs and how can they help me?
When most people learn about ACEs they don't feel fear—they feel freedom.
The ACEs is a 10-question survey. The survey provides a score which indicates the extent of trauma a person has experienced, and therefore their rates of risk for both mental and physical illness. The higher the ACE score, the more childhood adversity the person experienced, and the higher their risk for chronic disease, mental illness, violence, or becoming a victim of further violence.
But... how can this knowledge by freeing? Shouldn't that knowledge just scare me?
Those who live in the aftermath of trauma often find an overwhelming feeling of joy and radical relief when their experiences are validated and clarified.
If you're a survivor of trauma, life may feel chaotic. For a while, you might have felt like you hear or see something that brings back memories, flashbacks and anxiety, or perhaps you fall victim to emotional outbursts. It may feel like your life is out of control without any type of explanation as to why, despite all the things that may be going well in your life. When we've experienced trauma, our brains change. When we have unresolved trauma, our brain operates like it's still in danger. Our brains try to protect us. Even though we may be adults, deep down that scared, hurt, or scarred child is still with us.
Knowing your ACEs score can help you find hope. Your score may be the encouraging push you need to begin therapy so you can sort out your complex trauma and resolve issues stemming from the 10 ACEs of trauma. It may be inspiration for you to seek support from loved ones, open up about your experiences, validate and empathize with others, or even practice increased self-love, patience, and kindness with yourself. After all, you are not to blame for being exposed to adverse childhood experiences. You were only a child.
The 10 Childhood traumas include:
Mother Treated Violently
Other subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system, attending a zero-tolerance school, etc.
The most important thing to remember is that the ACE score is meant as a guideline: If you experienced other types of toxic stress over months or years, then those would likely increase your risk of health consequences, depending on the positive childhood experiences you had (see below).
Prior to your 18th birthday:
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Were your parents ever separated or divorced? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did a household member go to prison? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Now add up your “Yes” answers:
This is your ACE Score __________________
The power of the ACEs score is that it shifts the perspective of "what's wrong with me?" to "what happened to me?" It allows survivors of childhood trauma to answer questions like:
What do I not have that I need more of in my life?
What skills and resources did others get that I did not, that I can now try to give myself in adulthood?
What do I need to learn so I can be an effective parent, and teach my kid healthy coping skills?
How can I lower ACEs in the lives of my own children?
What self-care activities will help me address my traumas?
It is worth noting that there is no such thing as a hierarchy of pain. It doesn't matter what the types of ACEs are so much as the impact. One person may score a 4 who has experienced divorce, physical abuse, an incarcerated family member, and a parent with depression, while another person may have the same ace score of 4 but their experience included an alcoholic family member, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, and divorce. You can't compare your childhood trauma to some one else's, or minimize or deny the impacts of your experiences because you didn't "have it has bad as someone else."
ACEs are an incredible tool in helping survivors of trauma understand the impacts of trauma in their lives as well as Post-Traumatic stress. Trauma is traumatic, but knowing the impacts of trauma is not negative, depressing, or upsetting. With knowledge comes increased health and hope, love and patience, healing and growth.