If you want to change behavior that has harmed others, then getting to the source of those actions is key. Where do you start? Research over the past few decades consistently points us to start with our past. Specifically, we need to look at adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, to see how those events affect us as adults.

Sometimes I hear people say that looking at our past is pointless. How does it matter? The past is the past, and there is nothing we can do to change it now.

It’s true we can’t undo history. However, understanding how it affects us as adults is important so we can fix it. The good news about the damage we experienced from childhood trauma is that it can be undone as we develop resilience. This journey helps us find our untapped potential.

What are adverse childhood experiences?

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in a person’s childhood. ACEs fall into three major categories: abuse, neglect, and household challenges.

Abuse, or harmful mistreatment, is probably the obvious traumatic experience on the list. The abuse could be physical, sexual, or emotional in nature. Abuse is hurtful to people of all ages, but it’s particularly devastating to children because they lack the ability to cope effectively.

Neglect is far less recognized, but includes not getting our physical or emotional needs met. Things like going hungry or caretakers consistently failing to respond to an upset child are examples.

Household challenges, like domestic violence in the home, a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol, a family member with a mental illness, parents splitting up, or having a household member incarcerated are traumatic to children. They are in opposition to the safe and stable environment needed for healthy development.

If you’re wondering if you experienced any ACEs, or how many, take this ACEs Quiz. Studies show that about 64% of adults have experienced at least one ACE, and over 17% experienced four or more. For what it’s worth, my ACEs score is 5.

ACEs scores are not directly comparable, however. While the number of ACEs experienced matters, so does the intensity, frequency, and duration of the trauma. The more ACEs experienced more intensely for longer periods of time, the greater the risk for negative outcomes.

Impact of ACEs

These experiences can have a significant impact on a person’s physical and mental health, as well as their social and emotional well-being. Maltreatment can lead to the release of stress hormones, which can damage the developing brain and body.  The implications are far-reaching, even into adulthood, and can include:

  • Problems with learning, memory, and attention.
  • An increased risk of mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
  • A higher likelihood to act out or have difficulty controlling emotions.
  • More likely to engage in risky behaviors, like smoking or early sexual activity.
  • Increased risk of chronic health problems, like heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune disease.
  • Premature death.
  • Challenges maintaining relationships.
  • Higher incidence of substance abuse.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Difficulty trusting others.
  • More likely to drop out of school.
  • Problems finding and keeping a job.

I’ve often wondered why I have more trouble regulating my emotions than other people. Learning about ACEs explains it.

I’ve often wondered why I have more trouble regulating my emotions than other people. Learning about ACEs explains it.


Resilience: lessening the effects of ACEs

Fortunately, there are protective factors that can help ease the negative impacts of ACEs. When present, the child develops resilience. Research shows that when vulnerable children have some of these counter-ACEs conditions, it leads to better-than-expected outcomes:

  • Having a close relationship with a competent caregiver.
  • Developing skills like problem-solving or self–regulation.
  • Building agency: a sense that they can make their own decisions, are self-sufficient, and that they perceive some control in their life.
  • Cultivating a sense of purpose, such as connecting to a higher power through faith.
  • Identifying with or being part of the culture and community.
  • Maintaining social connections with friends and family.

The second page of the ACEs Quiz is a Resilience Questionnaire.

Overcoming adverse childhood experiences: strengthening resilience

Resilience can be strengthened at any age—it’s never too late. When cultivated, certain activities decrease the impact adverse childhood experiences will have. Physical exercise, reducing stress, and building self-regulation skills improves a person’s ability to cope with adversity. Modeling these skills for children helps the next generation, too.

While the process of overcoming adverse childhood experiences requires time, commitment, and the right support system, healing is possible, and you are not alone. Here are some ways to overcome ACEs:

  • Seek professional help. Talking to a counselor can help you understanding and process your experiences. They can share tools and strategies to manage difficult emotions and develop healthy coping mechanisms. In particular, look for one that specialize in trauma informed therapy.
  • Build supportive relationships. Surround yourself with people who care about you and make you feel safe and accepted. These relationships can be a source of strength and comfort as you work through your past.
  • Nurture your sense of value and purpose. Developing a personal relationship with God reminds us we are loved while putting what we’ve experienced into better context.
  • Practice self-care. Take care of yourself physically and mentally. This includes eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation.
  • Learn about ACEs. Educating yourself about ACEs can help you understand how your experiences have affected you and give you hope for the future. There are many resources available online and in libraries that can provide you with more information.
  • Join a support group. Connecting with other people who have experienced ACEs can be a powerful way to feel less alone and learn from each other’s experiences. Support groups can provide you with a sense of community and belonging.
  • Be patient. Healing from ACEs takes time. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see results immediately. Just keep taking steps forward, and eventually, you will begin to feel a difference.

Finding your untapped potential

Revisiting the past may be difficult. It may stir up painful thoughts and feelings. However, by exposing those deeply buried emotions and the past experiences that created them, we have a chance to heal. Those ACEs do not need to affect us any longer.

Like pulling out a sliver, it may hurt in the short-term, but we give ourselves an opportunity to stop the lingering pain in the long-term.