Recognizing the influence of caregivers on personality shaping, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente joined forces in 1995 to study “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” hereinafter referred to as ACEs.
Researchers assessed over 17,000 participants to determine the extent to which they were exposed to any of the following experiences before age 18:
emotional; physical or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect of the child; domestic conflicts between parents, including violence between partners in front of a child; parental abuse of psychoactive substances (alcohol, drugs); mental illness; divorce of parents; imprisonment of one of the parents.
The study found that trauma to ACEs was associated with a predisposition in adulthood for high health risk behaviors such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, risky activities (crime), and severe obesity.
Scientists have also found a link between the number of ACEs and health problems such as heart and lung disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and overall reduced life expectancy.
In addition, the researchers found a significant relationship between the number of adverse experiences in childhood and mental health problems – depression, anxiety, behavioral disorders and suicide.
Since then, the American Scientific Council for Child Development has expanded the list of ACEs to include social and systemic mental trauma: child abuse, racism, and chronic poverty.
Since initial research, hundreds of others have been conducted to identify possible negative effects associated with ACEs, including effects on personality traits such as anger (i.e., a predisposition to intense anger and hostility). This makes sense when you consider that child abuse creates a strong sense of threat in them, and they must “hold the line for life.”
Simply put, when a child is abused, he or she experiences a sense of threat that triggers a fight-flight-freeze response. These experiences contribute to a lower “threshold of activation”, the instant perception of a threat, even if it does not exist in reality.
This experience, according to experts, lays the foundation for the lack of ability of the rational brain (cerebral cortex) to suppress the emotional brain (parietal system). Thus, they increase the likelihood of a reaction.
In recent years, scientists have agreed that our neurophysiology has evolved to help satisfy three basic desires – safety, connectivity, and a comfortable existence. Children experiencing ACEs face challenges in all three of these cases. Their quality of life is significantly reduced overall.