Today, everyone should be talking about ACEs: adverse childhood experiences. That’s the view of a growing legion of experts who regard childhood trauma as one of the most profound and urgent public health challenges in the country.
Hundreds of studies link adverse childhood experiences to a huge array of diseases, mental illnesses and lifelong problems. An ACE is defined as one of 10 kinds of trauma, including all the things that happened in Frankie’s life, and more. Among them: sexual, physical or psychological abuse; emotional or physical neglect; mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence; an absent parent or incarcerated household member.
Exposure to these assaults at a young age can alter brain architecture, interrupt neurocircuitry, damage endocrine and immune systems and have lifelong harmful impacts on health and the human condition, potentially for generations to come.
The “toxic stress” of trauma can impair learning and emotional regulation, undermine social functioning and even change the signature of DNA.
An October 2017 report from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found nearly 30 percent of New Mexico’s children had two or more ACEs – the fourth-highest rate in the country. A 2016 study by the New Mexico Sentencing Commission established a clear connection between traumatic experiences and juvenile delinquency. Among all 220 teens held in detention in 2011: Every one of the girls – 100 percent – had two or more ACEs; for boys the rate was 96 percent.
Nearly 25 percent of the girls experienced nine major traumas. A parent beat them so hard it left marks. They saw their mother punched or threatened with a gun. They’d been raped, molested, verbally abused or constantly humiliated. Someone at home was alcoholic or drug addicted. They’d gone hungry.
The study underscored what could be called an ACEs-to-prison pipeline.
“You’re basically creating a group of kids who are going to have lifelong learning problems – they’re basically going to be like human road kill on the economic highway,” says primary care physician Andy Hsi, who co-wrote the report with specialists like George Davis, former director of psychiatry for New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department.
But if this picture appears unremittingly bleak, the bigger message is that all early childhood experiences are powerful. Positive experiences are as determinative as negative ones. They build resilience and give children “protective factors” that help them thrive.
Even children who suffer severe adversity can develop resilience, according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, a national leader in toxic stress and brain research. Resilience is built upon healthy early parenting and bonding, which make infants feel safe and nurtured.
“Loving the baby, kissing, holding, massaging, breastfeeding: The baby understands that language,” says Sanjeev Arora, a UNM physician and founder of Project ECHO, which brings high-quality medical treatment to remote parts of the state and worldwide. “The entire human experience is very intricately linked to feelings of security and lack of fear.”