Adverse Childhood Experiences
‘ACE’ is an acronym that would be familiar to most qualified therapists. It came out of a large public health study – the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study – conducted in the mid nineties by the Center for Disease Control and the Kaiser Permanente healthcare organisation in California.
The study measured ten types of childhood trauma. Some were personal: physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect and emotional neglect. Some were related to parents, caregivers or other family members: a family member who’s an alcoholic, a victim of domestic violence, in prison, diagnosed with a mental illness or going through a divorce. Each type of trauma counts as one. So, if you’re a person whose parent/caregiver had depression, if you were verbally abused and your parents divorced before you were 18, you would have an ACE score of 3.
About 17,000 people took part in the ACE study and the researchers found, firstly, that two-thirds of them had at least one adverse childhood experience and secondly, that whatever happened to them in their childhood would have a physical, social, emotional or health impact later in life. In other words, what happened to them would stay with them in some way.
‘Subtle’ childhood trauma
We experience so much shame for the destructive patterns we find ourselves acting out in adulthood because we had, on the whole, ‘supportive families’. We experience this shame, confusion and misunderstanding because the challenges of our childhood are broader, more nuanced and more complex than we account for.
When we think about difficult childhoods, our minds race to ACEs and stories of children who are beaten, sexually abused, screamed at, blamed or humiliated. We’re so used to focusing on the horrors of abuse that come from intentional, physical and abrupt action, that we forget about those equally painful moments of inaction: of neglect or ignoring.
On the surface, everything may have appeared fine, but hidden underneath other provisions of care and necessities like a roof over your head, material things or a routine, the adverse childhood experiences you might have had might have been subtle and unmemorable:
- A parent or caregiver may not have been very affectionate and cuddles or moments of embrace may have been few and far between.
- They may not have shown much interest in you, how your day was at school, or why you came home looking sad.
- They may have always had something more urgent to do: work to get on with or a place to be.
- They may not have lifted their heads to look at you when reading the paper. They may not have held your gaze.
- In an effort to be ‘perfect parents’, they may have modelled constant excelling and overachieving as a standard and bar to reach, leaving you little room to be real, and feeling like a failure for not meeting those standards.
- They may have left you for another family at a very early stage in your life.
- They may have been totally shut off from their own emotions or been unable to regulate them.
- They may have told you (directly or indirectly) that you can’t or shouldn’t experience certain emotions. When you got angry or upset, you may have been given a time out and left isolated on the ‘naughty step’, forced to contend with your need to be close and attached to them and your need to authentically feel and express your emotions.
Whatever it was for you, any of the above or something else, however obvious or subtle the challenges of your childhood were, they hold validity and are worth giving time to be thought and felt about. They stay with you, even if your parents did do their best.
The trauma isn’t necessarily the thing that happens, or in the cases of inaction, doesn’t happen, but it is what happens inside of you as a result of these traumatic events.
- The trauma is that you become disconnected from your emotions, intuition and from your body.
- The trauma is having difficulty being in the present moment.
- It is developing a negative view of your body and a negative view of the world.
- It is not knowing what you need, like or want.
- It is losing your sense of self.
- It is developing a defensive view of people.
- It is people-pleasing in order to feel seen.
- It is drinking or doing drugs to regulate emotions that went unregulated and unsupported.
- It is mistrusting others, pushing them away, avoiding close relationships.
- It is being terrified of rejection and uncomfortable showing affection.
The more time we spend denying or avoiding the reality of these experiences, the more of a hard time we have understanding our behaviour.
The more we can look at our childhoods with care, compassion and curiosity, the less likely we are to unconsciously rely on maladaptive patterns or ways of coping when we face challenges in adult life.
The more we can get in touch with our sensations and the feelings in our body (our breath, the tension we carry, any heat we feel), the more we can get in touch with and release what we carry with us from our pasts. From here, we can take more control. From here, we can lessen the negative impact our childhoods have on our adult relationships, especially our relationship with our own children, our intimate partners and ourselves.