I have three ACEs.
Most people I know have at least one ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) that they faced early in their life. This early adversity could be the divorce of their parents, substance abuse or mental illness of a parent, the death of a parent, emotional or physical neglect, or witnessing domestic violence at home.
ACEs are traumatic experiences that occur in one’s childhood that can negatively impact health and well-being throughout the lifespan.
Based on the groundbreaking ACEs research study, we know that ACEs are extremely common. In fact, 67 percent of us experienced at least one ACE, and one in eight of us had four or more ACEs while growing up.
Research shows that children who have experienced four or more ACEs are more than 30 times more likely to have a learning or behavior problem than their more fortunate peers. Wow.
And over time, this often leads to isolation and developmental delays, and long-term social problems, such as relationship violence, gang violence, substance abuse and bullying.
But what a lot of people don’t realize is that childhood trauma is directly correlated to long-term mental and physical health outcomes — things such as depression, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
The greater the number of traumas a child experiences in childhood, the greater the risk for these negative health outcomes later in life. In fact, if a child experiences six or more traumas, his or her life expectancy is shortened by 20 years. Think about that — a full 20 years shorter.
But it’s important to maintain hope. Having experienced adversity early in life isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Just as we understand more about trauma, we also now understand more about resiliency. And we have learned that the dangerous impacts of early adversity can be diminished with education and early intervention.
I am so very proud of CALM’s partnership with the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics and UCSB on an effort known as the Santa Barbara Resiliency Project. This project embeds a CALM social worker in pediatric clinics to provide support to families who need it.
We offer the ACEs screening and based on the results, can offer education, parenting supports and brief therapeutic interventions at well-baby appointments to support families and help children thrive. We are providing support and education as early as a baby’s four-month visit!
The Santa Barbara Resiliency Project is grounded in the work of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., a true visionary in the field of trauma and resiliency. Dr. Burke has called untreated ACEs the greatest public health crisis facing our nation.
She is coming to Santa Barbara via UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series on April 16 at 7:30 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. CALM is honored to be a co-sponsor of this free lecture, and I strongly encourage you to attend, listen and learn.
In addition, what can each of us do to tangibly support our kids and our community?
» First, we can start asking “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?” This is such an important shift in approach to reduce blame and stigma, and to work to understand that we are all deeply shaped by our early experiences.
» Next, we can better educate ourselves about the traumas we have experienced and how these may have impacted us by taking the ACEs test.
» Finally, we can start taking better care of ourselves. Parents, caregivers, teachers and anyone interacting with children must care for themselves, and make their own mental and physical health a priority. Since chaotic circumstances can make children feel lost or anxious, we need be their “rock,” helping them build secure attachments with caring adults.
And, more than anything, it’s important to remember that traumas do happen, and that those events can change us for a lifetime. However, it’s what we do with those experiences that is most important.
Resilience is the ability to experience trauma and come out strong on the other side. We all know that childhood trauma is tragic. But what I want all of us to remember is that childhood trauma is also preventable. As a community, we must come together to make these issues a priority. Our children are relying on us.
— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.