Around the world, there are researchers, scientists, and scholars are administering psychological studies and analyzing mental health data, all in the hopes that the field of psychology can provide greater prevention and treatment for those who are struggling with disorders and their symptoms. However, there’s one groundbreaking study that led to astonishing results. It’s called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACE study, and it provides information that all parents should know about.
The ACE Study
The ACE study is regarded as a notable one because of its results, leading to over 50 published articles and more than 100 conferences and presentations. Essentially, the study revealed that when children have adverse childhood experiences, it can contribute to health and social problems later as a result. That might not sound astonishing at first, but when looked at closely, the study revealed a direct link between mental health and physical health. The results highlighted that the sooner children, teens, and young adults address their mental health concerns, the more likely they will remain physically and emotionally healthy.
This is important for parents to know, especially those with teens who have experienced (or are experiencing) a childhood adverse experience, or ACE. An ACE can be any one of the following:
- domestic violence in the family
- physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- severe neglect
- parent or caregiver with a mental illness
- parental separation or divorce
- substance use and/or addiction among a close family member
- someone in the family who has been, or continues to be, incarcerated
Sadly, for some families, these experiences are frequent. In fact, that’s exactly what the study found: approximately, two-thirds of the participants reported at least one ACE in their lifetime, and one in five participants reported three or more ACEs. However, as this TED Talk points out, ACEs aren’t only found in low socioeconomic neighborhoods, ACEs are common across all ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups.
Results of the ACE Study
The study revealed that as the number of ACEs in a person’s life increased, so did the likelihood of having negative health and well-being outcomes later. In other words, the psychological stress that is created from adverse experiences, especially if those experiences are never addressed and resolved, will increase the risk for developing one of the following medical disorders:
- Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Fetal death
- Health-related quality of life
- Illicit drug use
- Ischemic heart disease
- Liver disease
- Poor work performance
- Financial stress
- Risk for intimate partner violence
- Multiple sexual partners
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Suicide attempts
- Unintended pregnancies
- Early initiation of smoking
- Early initiation of sexual activity
- Adolescent pregnancy
- Risk for sexual violence
- Poor academic achievement
The study surveyed over 17,000 individuals, made up of mostly white, educated participants of both genders. The research was conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control. Because of the results of the study, the ACE Questionnaire is now becoming a screening tool to help medical and mental health professionals with assessment, prevention, and treatment. In fact, in Vermont and other states, legislation has been passed to encourage the use of the ACE Questionnaire to more readily detect medical and mental health disorders. The ACE Questionnaire includes questions like:
- Did anyone in your household attempt to commit suicide?
- Did anyone in your household go to prison?
- Did anyone in your household commit a serious crime?
- Did you ever run away from home for more than one day?
- Was anyone in your home depressed or mentally ill?
What this Means for Parents
The study can lead to two major conclusions for parents. These are:
1. The health of your teen. If you have a child, teen, or young adult in your care, the ACE study clearly points out that if your child or teen has had an adverse experience they are at risk for medical concerns later. Assisting your teen in resolving traumatic or stressful experiences will be critical for their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. It’s common for families to look the other way and focus on what’s working or on day-to-day necessities. However, helping your teen to talk about past experiences and assisting them in resolving that experience can facilitate their physical, emotional, and psychological health.
2. Your own health. One adverse childhood experience explored in the study was when a parent had depression or another mental illness. This indicates that when parents are not emotionally or psychologically well it can have severe impacts on their children. Therefore, it’s not only important to address your teen’s adverse childhood experiences, but it’s also important to address your own. You can take the ACE Questionnaire yourself and find out what your ACE Score is. The higher your score, the more risk you have for developing a medical condition.
If you find that your teen has an ACE score that warrants professional psychological support, then it may be a good idea to seek out a therapist. Although some teens are opposed to seeing a therapist individually, there are other means of support that a teen might be open to, such as group therapy and support groups. You might also simply talk to your teen about any experiences you know they’ve been through. One of the key ways a teen overcomes the past is if they feel the support of those they love around them. Here are some ideas for helping a teen heal from a challenging past experience:
- talk to your teen about what happened
- communicate that you’re there for your teen
- provide your teen with tools for self-expression, such as a journal or art supplies (and enroll them in an art therapy group)
- encourage your teen to attend individual or group therapy
- connect your teen to other types of therapeutic experiences such as equine therapy, recreation therapy, and mindfulness groups
- commit to doing one self-care activity each week with your teen
- model for your teen what it means to take good care of yourself
If your teen has experienced an ACE, the suggestions above are tools for helping them heal from that experience.