Most adults are unaware of the lasting effects of difficult early childhood experiences. Our culture has so often emphasized resilience and achievement that we’ve not always explored the truth of what many individuals faced. What we now know from longitudinal research, like the major collaborative study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente, is that early adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are fairly common (23.7% of participants experienced at least one ACE) and have had significant and lasting effects of both physical and mental health. Exposure to any ACE was associated with a three times higher likelihood of depression. Physical health is also affected as ACEs are often linked to risk behavior as adults. Those who have experiences ACE are more likely to develop heart disease, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. The study also found a greater number of ACEs are associated with a higher risk of having multiple health issues later in life.
Researchers have identified some specific common family situations that comprise ACE. These situations include:
- Alcoholism of one or both parents
- Parental separation or divorce
- Mother was treated violently
- Emotional abuse in the home (verbal conflict, belittling, berating. fighting, namecalling, love withdrawal for the purposes of control)
- Mental illness in the home (depression, anxiety, narcissism)
- Physical abuse or neglect
- Sexual abuse
- Chronic medical issues
The lasting impact of childhood experiences
One of the reasons why early adverse experiences have such significant and lasting effects is because of their timing. Challenging and even traumatic experiences during childhood impact the developing brain. They impact how we develop socially, how we manage stress and relate to others. Exposure to repeated adverse events during a critical period of our development impacts how we learn and grow. Even into adulthood, we may continue to struggle to “catch up.”
But I had a good childhood
Many adults in various settings report they had a good childhood; however, they may not realize the level of stress and/or the toxic situations to which they were exposed. It is important to understand that even in loving environments, we may have encountered experiences that were problematic simply because the adults and caregivers in our lives were dealing with their own crises, stressors, or challenging early life histories.
Therapy can be helpful for understanding the challenges that resulted from ACEs. Difficulty managing emotions, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression can develop when we were exposed to early toxic stress. You may need to take time to process those experiences and make connections to issues that are emerging in the present. It is important to embrace positive steps towards change and growth, steps to learn coping skills that will help you move forward in a positive way.
Therapy helps you build on the strengths you already have, giving you the opportunity to receive the support and guidance you may have been lacking earlier in life.
Dr. Terry Crump is a clinical psychologist, board-certified clinical hypnotherapist, and author in the Metro Atlanta region specializing in individual therapy, hypnotherapy, and family consultations around health concerns.