Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – resources for practitioners
Everyone goes through stress as a child – failing at something we cared about, having to move house or change school, or losing a friend or pet. These experiences help us grow and become resilient.
But adverse childhood experiences are not something a child can just bounce back from. They are too overwhelming and scary, or they are situations that see a child lacking any real support.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) refer to some of the most intensive and frequently occurring sources of stress that children may suffer early in life.
When children are exposed to adverse and stressful experiences, it can have a long-lasting impact on their ability to think, interact with others and on their learning.
It has been shown that considerable and prolonged stress in childhood has life-long consequences for a person’s health and well-being, with negative behaviours often being used unconsciously as protective solutions to unrecognised problems dating back to childhood.
Work across the country aims to both prevent ACEs occurring in the first place wherever possible, and to prevent the consequences of ACEs in those that have already experienced them.
ACEs can be prevented – research has found that a relationship with one trusted adult during childhood can mitigate the impacts of ACEs on mental and physical well-being.
Manchester initiatives – the Our Manchester Approach
The project aims to determine if a deeper level of engagement and understanding of the root causes of behaviours, rather than ‘treating’ presenting behaviours can make the current local intervention offer work more effectively.
The project is undergoing constant evaluation and will test whether having a trauma-informed workforce at place level (not particular organisations) allows the workforce to engage on a deeper level with service users/people with lived experience.
The organisations involved in this new, integrated model of workforce reform include Integrated Neighbourhood Teams, police & Fire and Rescue, Youth Services, Voluntary and Community Sector, health services, health visiting & GPs, Social & Early Help services, substance misuse services, Mental Health services, Domestic Violence and Abuse services, Early Years & nurseries, schools (primary and secondary) and a college.
The project emphasises the Our Manchester approach of recognising strengths of individuals and community, of working together and improving lives. Find out more on the Rock Pool website at www.rockpool.life/manchester/
Once the training has been completed and is informing practice, Rock Pool will work with Manchester City Council to develop a cohort of Train the Trainers. Their role will be to act as advocates in their organisation and sector, and deliver the training on a wider scale.
What is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)?
The Commons Select Committee report: Evidence-based early years intervention published in November 2018 cited that whilst there is no universally agreed definition of an adverse childhood experience (ACE) studies addressing the issue have mostly converged on a similar set of experiences falling under this term and listed the following experiences:
- verbal abuse
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- physical neglect
- emotional neglect
- parental separation
- household mental illness
- household domestic violence
- household alcohol abuse
- household drug abuse
- incarceration of a household member.
Prevalence of ACEs
UK studies showed:
- Wales – almost 50% experienced 1 ACE and 14% experienced 4 or more
- England – almost 50% experienced 1 ACE and over 8% 4 or more
- Scotland does not have an ACE survey but it is proposed a similar prevalence of ACEs can be assumed.
The evidence for the Commons Select Committee report cited:
- 50% of Welsh adults had experienced at least one ACE
- 47% of English adults had experienced at least one ACE
- Scottish Public Health estimated that prevalence in Scotland would be at least as high.
The Children’s Commissioner’s Office estimated at least 690,000 children aged 0–5 in England live in a household with an adult that experienced domestic violence and abuse, substance misuse or mental health issues.
ACEs and health inequalities
A UK study suggests those with 4+ACEs are:
- 2x more likely to have a poor diet
- 2x more likely to binge drink
- 3x more likely to smoke
- 5x more likely to have had sex under 16 years
- 6x more likely to have been pregnant or got someone accidentally pregnant under 18
- 7x more likely to be involved in recent violence
- 11x more likely to have been incarcerated
- 11x more likely to have used heroin or crack.
Read a summary and review of national and international ACE activity on the research website at www.nwcpwd.nhs.uk/Adverse_Childhood_Experiences.pdf
Can ACEs be prevented?
Early intervention and collaborative working are essential to reducing the impact of ACEs. Early intervention refers to taking action to resolve problems as soon as possible, before they become more difficult to reverse.
The Select Committee report of November 2018 recommended early intervention in relation to childhood adversity and trauma, to tackle the potential long-term problems that those who encounter such experiences are more likely to encounter; and a new adversity-targeted early intervention strategy.
- Read the full report at publications.parliament.uk/cm201719
Stable, nurturing adult-child relationships and environments help children develop strong cognitive and emotional skills and the resilience required to flourish as adults. By encouraging such relationships ACEs can be prevented, even in difficult circumstances, and it is crucial to support and nurture children and young people as they develop and grow.
For adults who experienced ACEs in their childhood, it is possible to minimise the impact of ACEs on their health, relationships and lives in general.
ACEs have been found to have lifelong impacts on health and behaviour and they are relevant to all sectors and involve all communities. Everyone has a part to play in preventing adversity and raising awareness of ACEs. Resilient communities have an important role in action on ACEs.
Approaches and initiatives that can be developed include:
- raising awareness of ACEs
- reporting and recording ACEs into specific public health contracts (eg for sexual health and substance misuse)
- bringing ACEs into Early Action Programmes
- train staff to be able to routinely enquire about ACEs
- support local schools to be ACE-Aware and ACE-informed
- support social movements around ACEs.
This support can come from something as simple as a chat with a friend or family member, from a GP, or through one of the local and national organisations that can help recognise, work through and reverse the impact of ACEs.
Help & Support Manchester provides a directory of information about services, opportunities, advice and guidance to help individuals and families improve their lives – find these at hsm.manchester.gov.uk
Resources are listed below for both practitioners and the public. Further signposting to support on a range of issues or concerns can be found in our resource hub.
A Manchester e-learning package is in development.
The presentation ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences – Public Health Masterclass’ given by Jacqui Reid-Blackwood, Public Health Programme Manager for Public Health England can be downloaded from www.nwcpwd.nhs.uk/Presentation.pdf.
Awareness Raising animations and films
Public Health Wales and Blackburn with Darwen have produced a short-animated film to raise awareness of ACEs, their potential to damage health across the life course and the roles that different agencies can play in preventing ACEs and supporting those affected by them.
The ACE animation tells the story of a young boy growing up, and how his experience with ACEs could affect his life experience:
- view the film on the website at www.aces.me.uk/in-england or
- www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHgLYI9KZ-A (approx. 6 minutes)
NHS Health Scotland have produced a short animation to raise awareness about the impact of childhood adversity and stimulate discussion about what action can be taken to both prevent and respond to early adversity.
- The clip can be viewed at www.healthscotland.scot/adverse-childhood-experiences-aces/overview-of-aces (approx. 4 minutes)
The RAISE Team worked with young people across the Liverpool CAMHS partnership have captured some real-life views on how ACEs can affect someone’s life, but more importantly, focusing on how accessing support really helped them.
- Watch their film ‘Life is ACE fixed’ at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJEcK1WgqjA&feature=youtu.be (approx. 11 minutes)
Paediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explains that the repeated stress of abuse, neglect and parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain.
- View this talk at www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime (approx. 16 minutes)
Produced by the fostering promotion group ReMoved, this TedX features the story of a resilient, fictional young girl called Maja; who, frightened of her own father, is uncertain of when she may reach safety or if she will ever be properly loved and cared for.
- View at www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOeQUwdAjE0&feature=youtu.be (approx. 13 minutes)
Another TEDx discusses the global prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) like neglect, abuse and dysfunctional parenting, and how they drive poor public health, low productivity and other costs among adult populations.
- Watch at www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0kV7JtWiE&feature=youtu.be (approx. 16 minutes)
The 70/30 campaign is a national campaign led by children’s charity, WAVE Trust which aims to reduce child abuse and neglect by 70% by the year 2030 by increasing local and national demand for primary prevention (preventing child maltreatment from ever occurring) through the efforts of its dedicated Ambassador network.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester has endorsed the 70/30 campaign and the Wave Trust has engaged with the Greater Manchester Local Authority, feeding into their work to become one of the foremost UK local authorities in implementing early intervention.
It aims to empower front-line professionals, organisations, charities and community members through information-sharing, research and a variety of resource materials to make the change towards the prevention of child abuse and neglect that we all want to see for our children.
Their website contains a host of resources including info-graphics, research, blogs and books and a collection of videos that share and explain the 70/30 message.
- For the full suite of resources visit the website www.70-30.org.uk/resources
Beyond Adversity campaign
Addressing Adversity is part of the Young Minds Beyond Adversity campaign calling for better support for children and young people who have experienced trauma and adversity.
Addressing Adversity is a nationwide project that promotes trauma informed practice that helps professionals to support children and young people who have experienced distressing or disturbing times. YoungMinds compiled this collection to raise awareness about the impact of adversity and trauma on the mental health of children and young people; materials include the latest evidence, insight and good practice to support commissioners, providers and practitioners to prioritise adversity and trauma-informed care across England.
- Find resources including a poster and e-book on their website at youngminds.org.uk/addressing-adversity-book
The science behind ACEs
However, when repeatedly exposed to ACEs, CRH is continually produced by the brain, which results in a child remaining permanently in this heightened state of alert and unable to return to their natural relaxed and recovered state.
Consequently, children and young people who are exposed to ACEs have increased – and sustained – levels of stress. In this heightened neurological state, a young person is unable to think rationally and it is physiologically impossible for them to learn.
ACEs can have a negative impact on development in childhood which in turn can give rise to harmful behaviours, social issues and health problems in adulthood. There is now a great deal of research demonstrating that ACEs can negatively affect lifelong mental and physical health by disrupting brain and organ development and by damaging the body’s system for defending against diseases. The more ACEs a child experiences, the greater the chance of health and/or social problems in later life.
ACEs research shows that there is a strong correlation between ACEs and poor physical and mental health, chronic disease (such as type II diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; heart disease; cancer), increased levels of violence, and lower academic success both in childhood and adulthood.
- Full details can be found on the trailblazer website at www.blackburn.gov.uk/adverse-childhood-experiences-aces
Further reading and resources
The inquiry looked specifically at how research into ACEs can be more effectively mobilised to form better health, education and social policy.
- Read the report at publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmsctech/506/50602.htm
A Crying Shame – a report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner into vulnerable babies in England (October 2018) claims 16,000 babies are growing up in households where they are at risk of severe harm and that of 19,640 under-ones identified as being ‘in need’, 15,820 were still living at home.
It also estimates that 8,300 babies are growing up amid the ‘toxic trio’ of drug or alcohol addiction, domestic violence and severe mental ill-health.
- Read the report in full at www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/a-crying-shame/
The Scottish Public Health Network (ScotPHN) report ‘Polishing the Diamonds: Addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences in Scotland’ provides an overview on ACE and makes a number of recommendations.
- Find the report at www.scotphn.net/adverse-childhood-experiences/introduction/
Welsh Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
Reports relating to Adverse Childhood Experiences and their impact on health-harming behaviours in the Welsh adult population can be found on the Public Health Wales website at www.wales.nhs.uk
There are a number of topic based reports and supporting info-graphics:
- Report: ACEs and their impact on health-harming behaviours (Jan 2016)
- Info-graphic: ACEs and their impact on health-harming behaviours (Jan 2016)
- Report: ACES and their association with mental well-being (June 2016)
- Info-graphic: ACES and their association with mental well-being (June 2016)
- Report: ACEs and their association with chronic disease & health service use (Nov 2016)
- Info-graphic: ACEs and their association with chronic disease and health service use (Nov 2016)
- Report: Sources of resilience and their moderating relationships with harms from adverse childhood experiences (Jan 2018)
- Info-graphic: Sources of resilience and their moderating relationships with harms from adverse childhood experiences (Jan 2018).
Articles and blogs
The Adverse Childhood Experiences evidence base–a wake-up call to radically redesign Children’s Mental Health Services – read at weneedtotalkaboutchildrensmentalhealth.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/the-adverse-childhood-experiences-evidence-base-a-wake-up-call-to-radically-redesign-childrens-mental-health-services/
Read a useful article about the ACE studies at www.connectedforlife.co.uk/blog/2017/6/17/the-adverse-childhood-experiences-ace-study
The article at www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/blogs/Adverse-Childhood-Experiences-too-High considers ACEs and argues that the concept has a clear relevance and application for practice with children and families going forward.
Harvard University article on ACEs and Toxic Stress: Frequently Asked Questions can be read at
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies and Adverse Childhood Experiences Presentation Graphics can be found at
Further Centre for Youth Wellness articles can be read at centerforyouthwellness.org/ace-toxic-stress/
REACh was implemented across a large multi-site general practice in the North West of England to consider the feasibility and acceptability of ACE enquiry in general practice from both the patient and the practitioner perspective, and provides some initial insight into the potential impact of ACE enquiry on service delivery and patient health outcomes.
- Find the report at www.aces.me.uk/REACh_Evaluation_Report.pdf
Routine Enquiry About Adversity in Childhood (REACh): implementation pilot evaluation May 2018
The Department of Health and Social Care asked Lancashire Care Foundation Trust to develop an implementation pack to support services in developing, implementing and embedding routine enquiry about adversity in childhood. The implementation pack was piloted by 3 services in north-west England.
- The final report is published at www.gov.uk/routine-enquiry-about-adverse-childhood-experiences-implementation-pack-evaluation
ACE collaborative study for Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire and Luton
- Can be sourced at www.cph.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Adverse-Childhood-Experiences-in-Hertfordshire-Luton-and-Northamptonshire-FINAL_compressed.pdf
Original US study
ACEs grew out of a large-scale American public health research study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE study). The idea for which was triggered when a doctor running an obesity programme discovered that most of their clients had suffered childhood sexual abuse.
The original ACEs study, conducted in the USA, found that around two thirds (64%) of the 17,000 individuals included in the study reported at least one ACE, with over a quarter (26%) suffering physical abuse and a fifth experiencing some form of sexual abuse. Around one in eight individuals (13%) had experienced four or more ACEs. The study found the direct impact on a number of health issues, such as addiction, mental health, diabetes, violence for those people who had experienced childhood adversity.
Felitti, M. D., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, M. D. et al (1998) ‘Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study’ American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 14.
- More detailed information about the study can be found at www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/about.html
or sourced at www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(98)00017-8/abstract
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