Adverse Childhood Experiences

David Brooks’ New York Times column this morning was depressing.

Brooks was discussing academic research that traced a variety of adult anti-social behaviors and failures to cope back to certain “adverse” childhood experiences, including abuse, incarceration of a parent and similar destabilizing experiences.

The link between childhood trauma and adult outcomes was striking. People with an ACE score of 4 were seven times more likely to be alcoholics as adults than people with an ACE score of 0. They were six times more likely to have had sex before age 15, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer, four times as likely to suffer emphysema. People with an ACE score above 6 were 30 times more likely to have attempted suicide.

Later research suggested that only 3 percent of students with an ACE score of 0 had learning or behavioral problems in school. Among students with an ACE score of 4 or higher, 51 percent had those problems.

There’s more–all linking troubled childhoods to adult dysfunctions, both behavioral and medical.

This is depressing because our ability to intervene productively in an individual’s psyche–the ability of professionals or parents to “kiss it and make it well” is still in its infancy. If the conclusions being drawn from this research are accurate–if the problems reported by the adults are actually caused by the identified childhood traumas, and not just correlated with them–social service agencies and psychologists have a very limited ability to help.

It’s also depressing because–despite all the pious political concern expressed about “families” and the sanctity of each life–our public policies are anything but family-friendly. Forcing women to bear unwanted children raises the odds of unhappy childhoods. (Not to mention the studies–admittedly contested–that have tied easing of the access to abortion to lower crime rates twenty years later.) Punitive welfare policies all but ensure familial stress. Our insane approach to drug prohibition deprives thousands of children of their fathers without any corresponding benefit to society. Demonizing homosexuality torments the childhood of GLBT youngsters, disproportionate numbers of whom commit suicide.

As someone recently said, too many people who claim the label “pro life” are really only “pro birth.” Once the child has emerged from the womb, they lose both ¬†interest and compassion.

We may not be able to cure the effects of “adverse childhood experiences,” but rational public policies could help ameliorate those effects. If we really cared about children and families, a lot of our priorities would change.


  1. I worked in child psychiatry for 10 years, just recently left in hopes to work on the policies needed to help this population. I have spoken w/ social workers who have been in the business for 25+ years and they all say the same things, children because of what they have grown up with are sicker than they have ever been. Children are dealing w/ issues that at one time in our history only adults have dealt with.

    I have said this over and over again that too many adults have ruined the lives and the souls of our children. There isn’t enough therapy or drugs in the world to help so many of them and politicians and legislatures only speak of helping children out but nothing ever seems to get done.

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