What are ACEs and How Do They Impact us?

How to shatter the cycle of adverse childhood experiences

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Please note, the information in this post is not a replacement for personal medical advice.
By Kayla Reisinger, MS, tLMHC

“Is it possible that what I just did or said to my child had more to do with my needs, my fears, and my upbringing, than what is really in their best interest?”

How a parent interacts with their child can have a lifelong impact extending far beyond childhood. While we would like to think that our impact is always positive, the reality is that sometimes it can have negative side effects. This is where ACEs come in. So, what are they?

ACEs

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, categorize childhood trauma into 3 areas: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. The results of these unhealthy interactions can show up down the road in mental health struggles, unstable attachment styles, and low self-esteem. But what does “unhealthy” actually mean? Well, the short answer is this: it depends.

Each individual experiences different situations in their childhood, adolescence, and in adulthood. This graphic, from the ACEs Facebook page, does a really good job of identifying some key ways that parents damage their relationships with their children.

But, why?

Now that we’ve identified the “what”, it is natural to wonder “why”. Many times, childhood trauma is a pattern repeating itself from the generation(s) before. This includes untreated mental illness, abuse, and more. Additionally, people may not have had appropriate role models to demonstrate what it looks like to meet physical and emotional needs of those dependent on them. “Well, my parents didn’t tell me they loved me and I turned out just fine.” While that may be true, think of all the untapped potential within you as a result of that.

The answer to that “why” question is something we might never know. Lack of answers often come from our parents not having the awareness. Perhaps they aren’t aware that they did anything was wrong or unhealthy. And if they do have the awareness, they are unsure of healthier alternatives. People often resort to things they have learned. This is why it’s so easy for things to be transferred generationally.

It may seem like I am making excuses for parents who do not meet the needs of a child, but that is not my intention. When the cycle is broken, those responsible should be held accountable for their actions, or lack thereof. That accountability can come in the form of conversations, boundaries, separation or distance.

Negative Impacts

Now, let’s circle back around to the negative effects that I keep talking about. ACEs can result in things that become our core beliefs. In other words, what we truly think and feel about ourselves. These are likely to show up during adolescent and adult years. Though this list is not all encompassing, here are a few examples of those beliefs:

  • Feeling like you don’t belong
  • Struggling to trust people
  • Thinking that people will leave you
  • Having big emotional reactions to (seemingly) small things
  • Feeling not good enough
  • Thinking that romantic relationships are always really hard work
  • Struggling to say no
  • Feeling angry about the past
  • Struggling with anxiety/hyper-vigilance and/or depression

Breaking the Cycle

Moving out of the cycle of toxicity is a tricky dance. There is often shame and embarrassment when you share your feelings about your experiences. We often may not share our feelings with others because we feel that we are not worthy of being heard and don’t know what we want that next step to be. This may be because we are afraid that we’ll make others uncomfortable. One way to challenge those thoughts is to pay attention to your feelings. There may have been a lack of power and control over your life as a child, but you have the ability to change that now. This leads us to ask, “how do I change this cycle?”

The answer is to this is: by recognizing that you are resilient.

You are resilient

You are. Don’t believe me? Consider that you were dealt a really unfortunate hand, but you didn’t let that keep you down or control the path you took in life. That’s amazing.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to take hard work and a lot of intentionality, but you have already set the ball in motion. In recognizing your resiliency, you will be able to decrease the shame in asking for help. That help may come from a therapist, a friend, a coworker, etc. With time and support you can learn to foster healthy relationships and care for yourself the way you need to. When we build up our resilience, we begin to change how we see things. Instead of responding in a reactive, emotionally charged way, start to respond intentionally. We also keep an open mind to new possibilities as we grow from each experience. In other words, we try to look at the big picture.

It’s going to be okay

Further, we begin to practice patience and kindness with others and ourselves. This supports us in being able to build and value good, healthy relationships. In turn, these relationships will likely look different than those at the beginning of your life, and I’m here to tell you that is okay! The past can’t be erased and the future is not certain. So, that leaves the present, which is where we can focus our attention and energy. This is often seen as a very difficult step because our brain is wired to always be one step ahead. We have constant physical and emotional reminders of why we have these struggles in the first place. But remember, you are right where you are supposed to be.

So pay attention to what is around you and in your life. After all, what you notice will eventually grow. Many times this mindful practice comes from spending time alone processing situations and reflecting. What growth did happen? What growth did not happen, but still can?

As we grow up, we tend to stop asking questions and begin to just accept things as they are. However, we still possess the ability to ask questions and make changes. Just because something has always been a certain way does not mean it needs to stay that way. So yes, it’s true that growing up with parents who failed to meet physical and emotional needs can lead down a path of mental health issues, relational and attachment struggles, low self-esteem, difficulty with emotional expression, and assertiveness. However, with the help of professionals and a healthy support system, it is possible to shatter the cycle of ACEs. You have the strength within you.

“As traumatized children we always dreamed that someone would come and save us. We never dreamed that it would, in fact, be ourselves as adults.”

— Alice Little
Kayla Reisinger, MS, tLMHC
Kayla Reisinger, MS, tLMHC
Kayla supports people as they work through the feelings that accompany difficult times and work towards developing healthy and effective coping strategies.
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Kayla Reisinger, MS, tLMHC
Kayla Reisinger, MS, tLMHC
Kayla supports people as they work through the feelings that accompany difficult times and work towards developing healthy and effective coping strategies.
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