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Adverse Childhood Experiences: Trauma, Resiliency, and Breaking the Cycle

I  first learned about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) a few years back while I was a directxx service advocate working with survivors of various forms of violence. I don’t remember exactly how I heard about the then ground breaking research which stated that experiencing ACEs can contribute to later health disparities including physical health, mental health, and addiction. But I do remember having some strong resistance to my introduction to the concept which basically went something like this: the more harm you experience as a child the more likely you are to encounter later health problems and possibly early death. End, finito, that’s it.  While these connections have been well researched it is a very limiting view of the power the concept of ACEs truly holds.

A major shift ACEs research can provide to professionals working with traumatized communities or individuals is in our approach. Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?” we can ask “What happened to you?”. While the research supports that trauma has a real effect on people’s life it does not have to suggest that someone with a high ACE score is doomed. People are resilient, anyone working with trauma survivors knows this to be true. People can thrive, and they do when they have what they need to do so. Many of us may personally have a high ACE score and feel healed and whole. And we certainly encounter vibrant, healthy folks every day who experienced trauma early in life.

The ACE study is, perhaps above all, a cry for more primary prevention efforts. People who have experienced trauma can be robbed of their full potential. We know for many people, but not all, the violence in their lives starts as a child or young adult. We have a responsibility as communities to interrupt the cycles of violence that currently exists and promote healthier and safer options. Violence can be intergenerational and effect families for generations. We must interrupt this legacy by connecting people with healthy parenting classes or curricula and information on how to teach children about boundaries and consent. It is also vital to be aware that historical oppression and violence impacts ACE rates in different communities. Some communities experience higher ACE scores on average. This is not indicative of the people in a community, but instead it is indicative of the oppression and violence the community has and is currently experiencing.

If you want to utilize ACEs more in your practice, here are some things to consider along the way:

1.)    Know your ACE score. Whether you decide to share it or not is your business, but it is helpful to understand where you fit in the spectrum.

2.)    Believe that resiliency is the most common reaction to trauma and that people who have experienced great harm can heal and thrive. This does not mean we should ignore the causes or conditions that lead to violence in people’s life. We should still work to interrupt violence as it certainly does have negative consequences. However, people who have experienced trauma can live vibrant lives. Often time with children a caring adult can be the difference between struggling or thriving later in life. The more positive, caring relationships people have the better people do.

3.)    Understand how intergeneration trauma and historical trauma affect ACEs in different communities. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart is credited with the concept of historical trauma. Check her out and read her stuff. She’s amazing and so is her work. You can also learn more about intergenerational trauma here.

4.)      Believe that prevention is possible and weave as many primary prevention concepts into your work as possible.

Primary prevention is the key to reducing ACEs. You each have access to unique doors. Go find those doors and if you get lost along the way reach out to your primary prevention community!