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What are ACE’s?

Updated: Apr 7


mother looking at phone over breakfast as son looks sadly at food


Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that occur in childhood and can increase the risk of future challenges to health and wellbeing. These events can be something that was experienced, something that was witnessed, or even something that the child is aware of happening. Children can experience ACEs both inside and outside the home. Over 60% of the population has experienced at least one ACE (CDC, 2020; TED, 2015). About 12% of the population has experienced four or more ACEs, with women and some racial and ethnic groups at greater risk for experiencing four or more ACEs (CDC, 2020; TED, 2015). ACEs can have a profound effect on a child’s development, but they are preventable and the negative outcomes associated with ACEs can be prevented and mitigated as well. As someone who cares for a child, you play a vital role in preventing ACEs in your community and promoting your child’s future happiness, health, and success.


There is a broad range of experiences that can be qualified as ACEs. Every type of ACE threatens a child’s safety, stability, and bonding ability and can have lifelong and damaging effects on a child’s wellbeing. The following is a non-exhaustive list of types of ACEs:

  • Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse

  • Neglect

  • Parental mental illness

  • Parental substance dependence

  • Parental incarceration

  • Parental separation or divorce

  • Domestic violence

  • Bullying

  • Teen dating violence

  • Witnessing community violence

  • Experiencing food insecurity

  • Living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods

  • Household challenges


ACEs affect a child’s physical, emotional, and social development. Experiencing ACEs triggers stress responses in the body. Stress responses are useful survival tools, but it is not healthy for people to experience these kinds of responses frequently or long-term. ACEs change how a child’s brain, immune system, and hormonal system develop. Changes in brain development can affect attention, decision-making, learning, emotions, and other responses to stress (CDC, 2019; CDC, 2020). As children who have experienced ACEs get older and come into adulthood, they have a higher prevalence of depression, suicide, engagement in high risk behaviors, smoking, and substance misuse and dependence (CDC, 2019; CDC, 2020; TED, 2015). Individuals who have experienced one or more ACEs are at increased risk for heart disease, cancer, injury, STIs, maternal and child health problems, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and COPD (CDC, 2019; CDC, 2020; TED, 2015). They also are more likely to struggle with employment, finishing school, and finances (CDC, 2018; CDC, 2019; CDC, 2020;). ACEs can lead to difficulty forming healthy relationships and involvement in violent activity (CDC, 2019; CDC, 2020). It’s estimated that there is up to a 20 year difference between the life expectancy of a person who has experienced large amounts of ACE-related trauma and a person who does not have any ACEs (TED, 2015). There’s also a dose relationship- the more ACEs an individual has, the worse their future challenges and outcomes are. Again- ACEs are completely preventable and even if a child has ACEs there are ways to support them to help mitigate adverse health and behavioral outcomes. Through skill development and dedication to healing, better health outcomes are possible and achievable. This blog and the RedefineSLO Campaign address discipline, emotional learning, healthy relationships, and so much more. All of this is designed to provide you with the strategies and skills to prevent ACEs and support the healing and growing process of individuals who have experienced ACEs.


With all of this being said, there are still strategies and actions on the personal and community levels that can be accomplished to prevent ACEs and support individuals who have experienced ACEs. The CDC promotes five strategies: strengthening economic supports to families, promoting social norms that protect against violence and adversity, providing quality child care and education early in life, enhancing parenting skills to promote healthy child development, connecting youth to caring adults and activities, and intervening to lessen immediate and long-term harms. These strategies are outlined in further detail below (include “Preventing ACEs'' infographic). On a community level, parents, caregivers, and supporters need access to stable work, resources and training for positive parenting skills, high-quality childcare that is affordable, and safe and engaging after school activities for children. Safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments are essential to supporting the healthy development of children. Children need adult role models whom they can trust and know will listen to them. As someone who cares for a child, you are one of the most important people for your child to form this relationship with and you are an invaluable resource for getting your child connected with resources to support their wellbeing.



chart that explains three types of aces


It is also vital to consider and promote environments that provide protective factors against any potential adverse health outcomes resulting from ACEs. The nature, frequency, and seriousness of the traumatic event as well as the child’s prior history of trauma and available support influences how that child will respond to trauma. By increasing support for children, families, and communities and bolstering a child’s protective factors, we prevent ACEs and help children find ways to heal in the face of trauma. One of the most important protective factors is having safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with adults, mentors, and role models, both within and outside of the family. Having basic food, shelter, mental health, and physical health needs met as well as nurturing and safe childcare, schools, and activities also protects against and prevents ACEs. Caregiver behaviors that are protective factors include parental monitoring, supervision, consistent enforcement of rules, working through conflict peacefully, and helping children work through problems. Resources that support caregivers include steady employment, access to economic and financial help, and work opportunities with family-friendly policies. In order to combat the prevalence of ACEs on a community level, we must increase the number of partnerships between the community and businesses, the health care sector, and government agencies as well as our connections to each other. By promoting and creating safe, equitable, and positive environments we can support the health of our children and the health of our community at large.


In your role as an adult in your child’s life and a member of the SLO County community, there are things you can start doing now to support individuals and children impacted by ACEs. Continue to educate yourself about ACEs and how they affect your community. Subscribe to San Luis Obispo ACEs Connection to get access to resources, classes, training, information on ACEs, and connections to our SLO County community. Use what you’ve learned to support your child. Take it a step further: support our community and develop your skills by serving as a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sistersor Family Care Network. The resources, skills, and tools are at your fingertips for improving the safety, health, and happiness of your children and of your fellow community. The power to create meaningful and lasting change in our community is yours. It’s up to you to step forward and take action.



Additional Resources

ACE Quiz


Echo Training- an organization providing “trauma and resilience training for families, communities, professionals and organizations”


Nadine Burke Harris, MD - "The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity"


San Luis Obispo County 2020 Directory of Family Resource Centers



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