Many children are exposed to abuse, neglect and family dysfunction which experts often refer to as toxic stress. But why can some kids who encounter toxic stress move beyond it and lead a healthy life while others cannot?
That’s the question researchers set out to answer in one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being. The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, is called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study.
Originally, the study included more than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members from Southern California who received physical exams. The members completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences (abuse, neglect and family dysfunction including divorce, incarceration, substance abuse and mental health issues) and current health status and behaviors.
Researchers found that exposure to adverse childhood experiences hinders the formation of stable and healthy adult relationships. Plus, those experiences increase risk for:
Conversely, healthy relationships in the home, school and community nurture a child’s physical and emotional growth. In short, children need these types of relationships from birth forward in order to thrive and become productive adults.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a staggering 50 percent of the 73 million children living in the United States will experience violence, abuse, crime and psychological trauma before they turn 18.
The National Survey of Children’s Health, conducted by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, surveyed parents of 95,677 children age 17 and under. It asked whether their child had ever seen or heard “any parents, guardians or any other adults in the home slap, hit, kick, punch or beat each other up.” The exposure rate for children living with their two married biological parents was 19 out of every 1,000 children. For children living with a divorced or separated mother, the rate of exposure was seven times higher (144 children per 1,000). These comparisons are adjusted for differences across age, sex, race, family income, poverty status and parent’s education level.
In 2012, Tennessee conducted its own ACEs survey through the CDC to see how adverse childhood experiences affected the state’s general population. It found that about 42 percent of residents experienced two or more ACEs. And, 1 in 5 Tennesseeans has experienced at least three categories of ACEs. Emotional abuse, substance abuse and parental separation or divorce are the most common adverse experiences statewide.
There are many opportunities to learn about adverse childhood experiences, their impact on education, the workplace and throughout our community. In addition to learning how to help create safe and stable homes for children and recognize the signs of ACEs in adults, it’s crucial to discover how to promote healing for those who have been exposed to toxic stress.
Tennessee is launching one of the first comprehensive public policy shifts focused on prevention because preventing ACEs in young children before they experience ongoing “toxic stress” can actually lower taxpayer and community costs. Learning about the impact of ACEs can greatly benefit families, companies, churches, nonprofits, agencies and other community organizations.
Since we are all responsible for the well-being of our community's children, we can promote healthy child development together. For starters, we can help to create safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments that kids need.