Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and how the Church can help
Most of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lives—something that has affected who we are, informing our character and influencing our decisions. Whilst the traumatic experience, in and of itself, might have been negative; with the love and support of family and friends (and sometimes professional support services), trauma can build resilience and strengthen character and resolve. Good can come from bad. But what happens if trauma repeats itself, and there’s no one around to help?
Adverse Childhood Experiences, or “ACEs”, can be a single event or prolonged threats to, and breaches of, a child’s safety, security, trust or bodily integrity. The main ACEs currently identified throughout literature and practice are: parental separation, mental health problems, child verbal abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse, child neglect, alcohol misuse, drug abuse and parent incarceration. In some areas, physical ill health and disability in the family is also recognised as an adverse experience that can have long-term detrimental effects on children’s life chances.
Studies show that children who experience multiple ACEs (four or more) in childhood are more likely to have poor physical and mental health and to engage is health-harming behaviours such as drinking, smoking or taking drugs.
Cumulative exposure to adversity causes stress that behaves as a toxin in the developing brain of a child. In the absence of protective factors, this toxic stress can change a child’s neural architecture and result in emotional disorders and cognitive deficits. Childhood trauma is not something you just get over as you grow up; 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. This unfolds across a lifetime, to the point where those who’ve experienced high levels of trauma are at triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer.
Whilst poverty should not be confused with Adverse Childhood Experiences, Dr Morag Treanor (Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at Stirling University) notes, “…when poverty and ACEs coincide, they become more than the sum of their parts. When a child lives with ACEs, and also lives in poverty, the conditions are ripe for long-lasting trauma, or toxic stress, which is devastating to children in childhood, and which continues on into adulthood.”
Before Covid-19 there were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK. Executive Director and Clinical Child Psychologist Dr Eli Gardner recently wrote:
Poverty has an impact on parents’ ability to manage stressful events and can make good family functioning and strong parent-child relationships difficult. Parents who lack a sense of competence not only show less adequate parenting, but also tend to withdraw from interactions with the child and give up addressing problem behaviours altogether. One does not have to think too hard to imagine the psychological impact of pre-existing familial trauma exacerbated by a situation where fraught relationships have no room to breathe.
Then, mix a pandemic into the melting pot of poverty and ACEs, and an already-serious situation amplifies. Buttle UK’s State of Child Poverty Report 2021 is an assessment of the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 crisis on families and young people living in poverty, and highlights the most common ACEs (according to respondents) as:
Support workers reported that all ACEs have been made worse by Covid-19, of these:
Mental health problems (63% of children and young people)
Parental separation (63%)
Verbal abuse (61%)
Domestic abuse (59%)
In explaining these increases in severity, frontline support workers highlighted:
Family mental illness was seen having been impacted most, with 48% saying that it was ‘a lot more severe.’
Domestic violence was next with 38% reporting it being ‘a lot more severe.’
A lack of access to support—both through informal networks (i.e. family and friends) and formal support services.
A lack of respite for parents.
Reduced time in education, meaning that the issues that schools often monitored have not been picked up.
Decreased levels of exercise, poor diets and increased isolation.
When frontline workers were asked what was going to be the most crucial form of support for children going forward, overwhelmingly, their response was mental health support (at 48%).
How can the Church help? Drawing families out of seclusion and into community is of one of the ways that children who are struggling with ACEs can be noticed and prescribed some of the support they so desperately need in order to flourish in life. Strengthening families is a team effort, with the government and voluntary sector working together to support those facing adversity—and when the effort falls short, the Church, whose mandate is to have a conscience for those in need (the poor, lonely, destitute and downtrodden), must step in and bridge the gap for those at risk of falling into it.
Research has shown that the most effective early intervention to help children is group based parenting programmes. At Kids Matter, we partner with local churches to equip mums, dads and carers facing disadvantages with the tools (confidence, competence and community) to build strong families, thus reducing the impact of poverty on children. Our trained facilitators come into contact with parents and carers trying their best to manage households and bring up children who encounter traumatic experiences on a regular basis. Whilst we cannot fix poverty or erase ACEs, we recognise that confident parenting plays an important part in bridging the gap (between parent and child) created by trauma.
Together, we can build a future where children flourish.
To find out more about Kids Matter, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poverty as an Adverse Childhood Experience – NCMJ (https://www.ncmedicaljournal.com/content/79/2/124)
State of Child Poverty 2021 – ButtleUK (https://buttleuk.org/news/news-list/state-of-child-poverty-2021/)
How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime Nadine Burke Harris (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&ab_channel=TED)