By Katie Becker

Recently, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), conducted by the Center for Disease Control, looked at the high correlation child abuse and neglect have with mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, and poverty.

In his article about the study, Dr. Robert Anda explains the prevalence of these social health issues and why they closely relate. This twenty-year study notes that while almost all people experience some type of adverse experience as a child, like a parents’ divorce, the degree and frequency of such experiences significantly increases the risk of future health disorders, patterns of abuse, and risky behavior. Eventually, this may lead to chronic medical conditions and early death.

The study identified these as adverse childhood experiences:

  1.  Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) 
  2. Neglect (emotional and physical)
  3. Household Dysfunction (witnessing domestic violence, parental separation or divorce, substance abuse, incarcerated family member)

A survey asked a group of predominantly white, middle-class participants of both sexes to identify how many adverse experiences they had as a child. Each “yes” response scored one point on the ACE Scale, ranging from 0-10. The results showed that people with an ACE score of 4 or more had higher rates of substance abuse (including tobacco, alcohol, and most notably intravenous drug use). It also showed a high correlation between those childhood experiences with a number of adulthood issues, including the likelihood of being in an abusive relationship and attempting suicide (

While this study reveals a tragic reality of children living in these situations, it also explained how these childhood stressors affect the brain development of children. This results in the increased release of the ‘fight or flight’ chemical, Cortisol. Although everyone experiences this chemical release to some extent, children exposed to repeated stressors release higher and more consistent levels of the drug. Over time, these levels of Cortisol actually affect brain development, making it harder to control their emotions. They also are less resilient and have increased aggression (Anda, 2010).

This study and its findings point to the importance of people working together to prevent and treat behaviors such as substance abuse and child abuse. The study looks to child abuse prevention as the catalyst of and avenue for additional forms of prevention. When we look at the findings of this study, it is impossible to view any one form of prevention independent from another. 

Collaborative efforts with intervention professionals in the mental health, substance treatment, and domestic violence fields, are important. By strengthening these relationships, we further support intervention efforts, reducing negative childhood experiences. This leads to a new and prosperous future, giving our children positive experiences and resiliency.

For us to fully prevent the diseases and abuse that permeate our communities, we must embrace a closely integrated support system. Increased positive role modeling by all adults in the life of a child is an important step to take. Increased intervention efforts that are formal, such as treatment facilities, or informal such as a neighbor’s offer to care for a baby to give the parents a break, will help families address the traumas and behaviors that perpetuate the cycle of abuse.


Read the blog post series, Cindy’s Story, for more explanation of what the concern is, why you and I must care, and how we can step in and prevent these issues from happening.

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