Helen Keller said:
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) hadn’t been formally named and studied yet back in Helen Keller’s day (the landmark study was published in 1998), but she still recognized both trauma and resilience in the world.
We all have oddities, habits, or beliefs we can trace back to our parents. One friend I have saves used cottage cheese and yogurt containers to put leftovers in. She washes them out by hand and has stacks of them in her cupboard. She uses them occasionally, but I don’t see how she could ever use all of them. Reducing waste and recycling are great habits, but this is a bit out of control. She’s confessed to me that her parents always saved containers, and it’s just something she’s always done. I suspect her husband throws them away sometimes when she’s not home, or her house would be completely overrun! This is a harmless example of a habit passed down through generations, but not all things passed down are harmless.
When people have a childhood filled with trauma, they are far more likely to have all sorts of problems as adults. Blaming our parents for all our adult problems isn’t the solution here, but acknowledging our childhood trauma is an important part of the healing process. In many cases, trauma is unintentionally inflicted on children by adults who are struggling with their own trauma from the past.
In this post, I’ll explain Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and discuss some of the ways trauma from a person’s childhood impacts their life and their own parenting. My next post will discuss strategies for building resilience – for both you and your child. I’ll also tell you about a workshop I’m offering called Taming Your Triggers to support you on your healing journey.
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
A significant study in the 1990s demonstrated – for the first time – that childhood trauma increases an individual’s risk of developing a remarkably wide range of physical and psychological health problems.
In the study, participants answered a 10 question survey and received an ACE Score between 0-7. Broadly, the ACE questionnaire asks about these experiences:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Domestic violence in the household
- Criminal activity in the household
- Mental illness in the household
- Substance abuse in the household
If you’d like to, you can find out your own ACE Score by taking the survey located here. For us as parents, I think the takeaway here is that if you experienced traumatic events as a child, it may still be impacting your well-being and health. One traumatic event can lead to more traumatic events. In short, traumatic events from your past may be making it hard to be the parent you want to be.
Imagine a child who grows up in a home where they saw one parent control and beat the other or their parents were regularly too drunk to provide safe care. This child may grow up assuming their lives are normal; they may not realize they’re experienced trauma. That doesn’t mean the trauma doesn’t affect them. They might notice they are quick to get angry, unable to express emotion, or that they struggle to hold down a long-term job.
One of the most shocking aspects of the ACE study was the prevalence of childhood trauma. The ACE Study has been replicated many times since the original research in 1998. On average, the CDC says 61% of adults in the US have an ACE score of at least 1. About 15% reported having a score of 4 or higher.
One important limitation of the various studies on ACEs is that they only tend to examine trauma associated with abuse and household dysfunction. They don’t address trauma due to factors like structural racism, natural disasters, wars, or other factors – so if you have experienced these kinds of events then your ‘official’ ACE score is likely underestimated.
These kinds of events can cause trauma in individuals that has lasting effects. People with high ACE scores are significantly more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or be violent with their partners which in turn creates adverse childhood experiences for their children. Adults with 4 or more ACEs are twice as likely to develop liver disease, 4.5 times more likely to develop depression, 6.1 times more likely to receive treatment for mental illness, and 11 times more likely to use intravenous drugs.
This is why it’s important for us, as parents, to try to heal from our own traumatic experiences and develop our resilience, so we can break the cycle of trauma and raise our children to be more completely fulfilled than we have been.
Trauma changes the structure of our brains
Our reactions to trauma aren’t just based on the type and severity of trauma; the field of epigenetics tells us that experiences can actually determine which of our genes get turned off or turned on. So our reaction to things that happen to us is a result of of environmental factors, genetic risk, and personality. This is why some people can experience what psychologists call ‘Big T Trauma’ like the Holocaust and emerge relatively unscathed, while others go through ‘little t trauma’ like feeling a lack of attachment to their parent and it ends up severely impacting their lives.
When we experience trauma, we go into “fight, flight, freeze mode” and our brain is flooded with a hormone called cortisol. When this system is over-activated, as it would be in a case of ongoing family trauma, we might have intense and vivid memories, flashbulb memories (having a very detailed memory of a specific moment), intrusive memories (which pop up at apparently rando times), or completely forgetting the trauma through the process of dissociation. When we are in this state, our frontal cortex – where we process information and construct meaning – is shut down. When we can’t think clearly ourselves and may also feel we can’t discuss the subject with others our memories of the event may be vivid and distressing, but very disorganized.
Your ACEs can have a huge impact on your parenting
People with higher ACE scores are more likely to engage in risky behavior. The behavior may begin as a solution – a way to release stress or escape. When parents engage in high-risk behaviors, the whole family suffers the consequences. Alcoholism, domestic violence, rocky relationships, and legal trouble are just a few of the potential family stressors.
When we think about intergenerational trauma, we often think of the cycle of violence. If a parent was abused or mistreated, their child is more likely to experience abuse or mistreatment. In addition, the consequences of the parent’s trauma – posttraumatic stress, anxiety, or even physical conditions like altered levels of cortisol affect their child’s life as the parent finds they have a short fuse and feels ‘triggered’ by everyday situations.
1. Reenacting our past trauma
We may unconsciously reenact trauma. For example, if we grew up constantly being ignored by our primary parent, we may tend to seek out partners who will ignore us. We’re drawn to these people subconsciously. On some level, it seems that if we can find a way to make our relationship work or to ‘fix’ our partner, we’ll be able to heal from the trauma of the past because our brains trick us into believing that we can ‘have another chance’ at succeeding in an unhealthy relationship. If we were mistreated by a parent, we may find ourselves in relationships where we are mistreated. Our brains tell us that if we can make this relationship work, we’ll somehow make the past alright. We unintentionally recreate the family situation that we are familiar with. We might have these unhealthy relationships with partners, with a job or a friend, or some other project we take on.
2. Losing your rational thinking ability because of triggering
Maria can hear her husband and daughter playing in the next room. It’s a lovely sound. There’s lots of giggling. Then she hears her daughter say, “Stop!” A few seconds later she hears it again. She goes into the next room and sees her daughter being tickled. She’s squirming and trying to get away. Maria trusts her husband, but seeing and hearing this scene triggers past memories of abuse. How she reacts could leave a lasting impact on her child, her marriage, or both, but in the moment, she isn’t able to think rationally and make a conscious choice.
Our children can remind us of our past trauma, and when this happens we may feel ‘triggered.’. When we’re triggered, we stop acting with our rational brain and slip into our ‘reptile brain.’ We perceive danger. We react with “fight, flight, or freeze.” We developed this instinctive response to protect ourselves when we were young but now we’re adults, the instinctive response often prevents us from effectively managing situations and solving problems.
Anger is a common response to traumatic events, especially when the person who inflicted the trauma was a caregiver (this is called ‘complex trauma’). When we experience events that remind us – consciously or unconsciously – of a traumatic incident, we may unleash that anger onto others. Some survivors of childhood trauma find themselves getting severely angry for reasons they can’t identify or having strong angry responses that are disproportionate to the apparent cause of the anger. It’s also common for anger to be misdirected, so a person might feel angry at the whole world rather than toward specific people or circumstances. These reactions can be reactions to trauma we acknowledge, trauma we try to minimize, or trauma we haven’t identified.
3. Imitating our abusers
Mike sees his kids playing. In a flash, they go from laughing and fun to an all-out wrestling match. One child is significantly bigger than the other. Mike snaps at the older child, “What the hell do you think you’re doing! You’re an idiot! Get out of my sight!” The older child bursts into tears and runs off. Mike feels like he’s going to be sick.
People have a tendency to ‘turn into’ their parents. Especially when we become parents, it’s very common to notice ourselves saying specific words or using particular tones that we recognize as our parents. In the example above, Mike heard those phrases so frequently as a child, that they came out of his mouth automatically. It’s something he never wanted to say to his own children. Without noticing this behavior and making a conscious effort not to turn into our parents, it’s very likely that we will imitate their parenting style, whether it fits with our personal values and goals for raising our children – or not.
4. Distorted thinking
When children hear repeated messages about their own inadequacy, they internalize negative messages. They may believe they are incapable of success or unworthy of love. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a parent believes they are incapable of breaking the cycle of abuse or caring for their child, it can come true.
5. Overcompensating in an effort to do things differently
If a parent remembers feeling controlled as a child and decides they will not be like their parent, they may go too far in the other direction and fail to give their child enough structure. If a parent recalls getting into dangerous situations as a child, they may smother their child in an effort to keep them safe.
6. Family stress resulting from your mental and physical illness
One of the most surprising effects of childhood trauma is the increased likelihood of developing illnesses and diseases. An ACE score of 4 or more significantly increases the risk of developing serious, often fatal, diseases and conditions: cancer, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), heart disease, stroke, and several others.
Parenting is tough for all of us. If we have poor health, it is tougher. It’s not really possible to definitively say that childhood trauma causes physical diseases and conditions later in life, but the correlation between higher numbers of ACEs and health problems is undeniable.
The cycle can end with you
If this is the first you’ve heard of ACEs, all this information can be overwhelming. Maybe you see the connections between ACEs and behavior you’ve seen in yourself, your partner, or a friend. If you are trying to recover from childhood trauma, it’s wise to work with a therapist trained in trauma-informed care. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma-Informed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TI-CBT) are two examples of evidence-based trauma-informed therapy. Ask about your therapist’s specific training regarding trauma-informed care before you start therapy.
Also, keep in mind:
- ACEs are preventable. While we can’t completely control the environment our child grows up in, and some stress is necessary for a child’s normal development, our child does not have to experience the trauma you may have experienced. You can protect your child.
- Even as an adult, you can build your resilience in a way that reduces your triggered feelings and improves the emotional climate in your home. In my next post, I’ll discuss some action steps you can take to build your resilience and stop the cycle of trauma and abuse. Starting on February 23rd, I’ll run another series of my Taming Your Triggers workshop, where we’ll work on recognizing and managing your triggers and learning new strategies to stop the cycle. Endorsed by a trauma-informed therapist and used by hundreds of parents to better understand how their experiences have impacted their parenting, you’ll learn how to begin healing yourself and walk a path toward clarity and calm. Click here to learn more about the workshop and sign up!