Youthworkers Need To Know. . . Adverse Childhood Experiences. . .

A kid is a kid is a kid. . . or so I thought when I first got started in youth ministry. Somehow and some way, I missed the fact that each and every one of these precious image-bearers had a unique story. It wasn’t so much was I saw as I looked into their eyes that made them who they were, but what had happened or not happened over the course of their lives.  Yes, I understood that we live in a broken world. And I understood that all kids long for redemption. I knew that they were, as the Apostle says, “groaning” to be made whole. But I really had no idea how the unique combination of brokenness had factored into shaping who they had become and who they were becoming for the rest of their lives.

Over the course of last three decades, I’ve looked more closely at how several types of brokenness (divorce, abuse, fatherlessness, etc.) form and deform our kids. A couple of weeks ago, some helpful research on these matters that I had somehow missed came to my attention. Our CPYU Facebook Reading/Discussion Group recently read through Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling Of The American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up A Generation For Failure. In their chapter on “Paranoid Parenting” (a whole other subject!), they mention research that had been conducted on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE. My curiosity was pricked and I jumped into a quest to learn more about ACE. What I found was fascinating, frightening, compelling, and eye-opening.

The chatter about ACE all began back in the late 1990’s when the CDC and the Kaiser Permanente not-for-profit health plan set out to determine the long-term effects of childhood trauma. Using a sample of 17,337 participants (half male/half female, 75% white, 75% had attended college, average age of 57, and all working with good healthcare), researchers asked questions about childhood experiences and current health issues.

An ACE (see infographic below) is a potentially traumatic event that occurs during the first 18 years of life. An ACE brings toxic stress with the child experiencing strong, frequent, or prolonged adversity in the absence of adequate adult support. In a nutshell, researchers learned that Adverse Childhood Experiences can have negative lasting effects on health and well-being. These experiences harm a child’s brain, lead to how they learn to respond to stress, and damage immune systems in ways that are so profound that the effects continue to show up decades after childhood. In other words, these things are not neutral or benign. Sin and brokenness can wreak havoc on a kids life in both the present and the future. Once again. . . not surprisingly. . . life confirms biblical truth.

Researchers originally looked to identify the presence of 10 types of ACE. . . things that are not the way they are supposed to be:

  • Emotional Abuse
  • Physical Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Mother Treated Violently
  • Substance Abuse In The Household
  • Mental Illness In The Household
  • Parental Separation Or Divorce
  • Incarcerated Household Member
  • Emotional Neglect
  • Physical Neglect

The results were stunning. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents had at least one ACE. Only 36% had never experienced an ACE during the first 18 years of their life. The break-down of rest of the results looks like this:

  • 26% had experienced one ACE
  • 16% had experienced two ACE
  • 9.5% had experienced three ACE
  • 12.5% had experienced four or more ACE

In the two decades since the original research was conducted, experts are now including these additional Adverse Childhood Experiences to the list of the original 10: racism, gender discrimination, witnessing a sibling’s abuse, witnessing violence outside the home, witnessing a father being abused by a mother, being bullied, involvement in the foster care system, living in a war zone, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and losing a family member to deportation.

Folks. . . these are our kids. And when they experience these toxic stressors during the most formative years of their lives, the fall-out is significant. Researchers found that Adverse Childhood Experiences had a “dose-response” relationship with many health problems that continue on during one’s lifespan. As researchers followed participants over time, they discovered that a person’s cumulative ACE score has a strong, grade relationship to numerous health, behavioral, and social problems over the course of one’s life. These include:

  • Altered Brain Structure: a child’s developing brain is damaged through an overload of stress hormones.
  • Long-Term Physical Effects: including accelerating the process of disease, aging, and auto-immune diseases.
  • Decreased Physical Health: high blood pressure, weakened heart/circulatory system, strokes, cancer, high cholesterol, type 2 Diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, gastrointestinal disease, depression, anorexia nervosa, Cushing’s Syndrome, hyperthyroidism, lupus, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia.
  • Genetic Mutations: specifically, inhibiting  the function of genes that manage stress in healthy ways. . . and in a stunning finding, the fact that these changes in function can actually be passed from one generation to another.
  • Decreased Mental Health: toxic stress changes the shape of the brain, shrinking the parts of the brain that are responsible for learning and memory. In addition, under-development of the part of the brain that processes fear, deficits in decision-making, and deficits in impulse-control. Toxic stress also leads to depression, higher likelihood of suicide, generalized anxiety, and PTSD.
  • Decreased Social Stability: a person is more likely to engage in personally and socially risky behaviors (sexual behaviors, earlier unintended pregnancy, smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse, poor work performance, unemployment, sexual violence, etc.)
  • Earlier Death: a life expectancy that is 20 years shorter than that of the average adult.

As we get to know our kids and their pain. . . along with the fall-out that oftentimes follows that pain. . . we can’t forget that God is a God of healing and redemption. We often use the term “resiliency” to describe kids who are able to weather these storms of life. If we hope to stand in the gap for our kids and lead them to healing and wholeness, we need to be aware of the factors that foster childhood resiliency. These include:

  • Strong family nurture.
  • Outside sources of help and support.
  • An important/connected/caring person outside of the family circle.
  • Participation in extra-curricular activities.
  • Help from a church youth group, youth leader, or minister.
  • Regeneration and knowledge of/engagement with the life-giving Gospel.

Dr. Diane Langberg has said that “trauma is the mission field of the 21st century.” We need to go to this mission field, live on this mission field, and bring the Gospel to this mission field.



One thought on “Youthworkers Need To Know. . . Adverse Childhood Experiences. . .

  1. Walt, I remember reading about ACE, when you first brought it to light, but just noticed the negative genetic changes that can be passed down.
    Re-listening to my favorite professor’s Parenting class and the passage in Deut. 6:9 “visiting (not punishing as in the NAS) the iniquity of the father’s on the children to the third and fourth generation.”
    Science confirming Scripture once again.

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