Adverse Childhood Experiences

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Imagine you are walking in the woods and you encounter something frightening, perhaps a bear. Immediately the hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary which sends a signal to your adrenal gland saying release stress hormones, NOW! This is exactly what you want to happen, if you encounter a bear. Sadly this adaptive life-saving process can become maladaptive and health damaging when it is happening all the time, referred to as toxic stress. Children are more susceptible to long term effects of toxic stress. Pediatrician, Nadine Burke Harris speaks eloquently on a Ted Talk about toxic stresses like abuse, neglect, a parent/caregiver with a mental illness, or a parent/caregiver with substance dependence. 

Dr. Burke tells us about her relief when she discovered the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs study. It showed a direct correlation to poor adult health and high ACE scores and it confirmed her suspicions. Exposure to adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. If pediatricians and mental health professionals are not aware of these experiences, then children can be misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or other behavioral disorders. A child who is “facing a bear” every day in their home may overreact to healthy stress outside of the home with fight or flight hormones causing extreme reactions often misunderstood as bad behavior.

In the mid 90’s Dr. Vince Felitti at Kaiser and Dr. Bob Anda at the CDC studied 17,500 adults consisting of a population that was 70% caucasian and 70% college-educated, asking them about their history of exposure to ACEs. They asked ten questions to participants and found that 1 in 8 adults have four or more ACES, meaning they answered positively to these questions about abuse, food insecurity, and mental illness. The study reports sober statistics about adults with an ACE score of 4 or higher. They are two and a half times more likely to develop copd & hepatitis, four and a half times more likely to develop depression, twelve times more likely to be suicidal, three times more likely to have lung cancer, and three and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease. “The child may not remember, but the body does,” was a memorable quote illustrating the long-term toll that mental stress can have on physical well being.

Prevent Child Abuse NC is helping to spread the truth about ACEs. They are working to educate parents about these devastating effects and they share five protective factors that can reduce these statistics: 1) children have a positive relationship with a caring adult, 2) parents increase their knowledge of parenting and child development, 3) children learn resilience from positive stress, 4) parents have a positive support network, 5) and children’s basic needs are consistently met. 

In 2016, KPJR films released the movie “Resilience”. From the movie’s website, “toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune. Resilience, however, also chronicles the dawn of a movement that is determined to fight back. Trailblazers in pediatrics, education, and social welfare are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the insidious effects of toxic stress—and the dark legacy of a childhood that no child would choose.”

I learned about the ACE study and watched Resilience last year at a North Carolina State Extension workshop. I am convinced that youth programs like 4-H, YMCA, Boys and Girls clubs, religious and non-religious youth groups, and scouts are a valuable asset in our community, especially when the leaders are able to connect with members and be that caring adult. The United Way showed the movie here at the McSwain office and Lee County responded admirably by forming a coalition called the Lee County Community Resilience Collaborative. A sub-committee of the coalition, Voices for Children, will be showing the movie on February 19, 2020, from 7:30 to 10 a.m. at the Boys and Girls Club to help spread understanding. I hope to see you there.

For more information on how to participate in this initiative or partner with our 4-H program to offer a 4-H club or workshop please call the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center at 919-775-5624 or email us at You can be the caring adult, affecting all aspects of behavior and development of a young person.

Pam Kerley is the 4-H Program Assistant with North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.