Definition: Adverse Childhood Experiences

Young Minds define Adverse Childhood Experiences as “highly stressful, and potentially traumatic, events or situations that occur during childhood and/or adolescence. They can be a single event, or prolonged threats to, and breaches of, the young person’s safety, security, trust or bodily integrity.”31Young Minds – Understanding Trauma and Adversity 

It is worth noting that there are limitations to the ACE framework and that it does not cover all adversities that someone could experience in childhood. It also does not acknowledge structural and social adversities and the impacts these inequalities cause.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (often shortened and referred to as ACEs) are categorised into three sections:

This is not an exhaustive list and it is constantly being reviewed and updated. Other adversities that can have negative long-term effects include bereavement, bullying, poverty and racism.  

A high ACE score should not be seen as someone’s destiny. If you are looking at this framework and notice you have a lot of ACEs it does not necessarily mean that you are going to be incarcerated or be violent towards someone. There is much that can be done to offer hope and build resilience in children, young people and adults who have experienced adversity in early life. 

Why is it important to understand ACEs?

Adversity in childhood can create harmful levels of stress, which impact healthy brain development. When exposed to stressful situations, the “fight, flight, freeze or fawn” response floods our brain with hormones. These hormones usually form part of a normal and protective response that subsides once the stressful situation passes. However, when repeatedly exposed to ACEs, these hormones are continually produced by the brain, resulting in the child remaining permanently in this heightened state of alert and unable to return to their natural relaxed and recovered state. This hormonal response can result in long-term effects on learning, behaviour and health. 

Fight, flight, freeze or fawn is our bodies response to perceived threat. This can be from a physical or verbal threat.

FIGHT - body wants to face the threat
FLIGHT - body wants to run away from the threat
FREEZE - body is unable to move or act
FAWN - body appeases the threat to avoid conflict

People who are exposed to four or more ACEs are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviours compared to people with no ACEs. When people exposed to 4 or more ACEs get older, they can often rely on drinking, overeating, gambling, taking drugs or smoking, to deal with difficult feelings and emotions. They may not classify these as harmful behaviours but as solutions or coping mechanisms.

Activity: Impacts from ACEs later in life

Drag and drop to match the number to the picture that you think it is associated with to further your understanding of ACEs.

For more information on ACE’s check out this NHS Video.