Press, Articles, & Presentations

ACEs in the shadows Book review by:

Mike Findlay Head of Communications and External Affairs at Victim Support Scotland - I came  across this book by accident when it appeared as a recommended read on Amazon. The fact the author wasn’t named (A Survivor) intrigued me. I was curious as to what their motivation was for writing. Full review HERE

CUMBRIA COUNTY COUNCIL Public Health Annual Report 2018 Adverse Childhood Experiences

Our 'Working with ACEs' accredited training is cited in this report alongside contributions made by CUMBRIA RESILIENCE PROJECT

PUBLIC HEALTH ENGLAND North West Conference on Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma Evidence in Practice

Inter-generational ACEs – How Adverse Childhood Experiences can affect a family’s past, present, and future.

Do you ever wonder why you feel and act the way you do, or why your friend screamed at that woman for no real reason, or that your child behaves so ‘badly’ or your husband lost another job and you just can’t seem to change these things? You look at other families and wonder why their life seems so easy and their children so perfect? We used to be told that it was ‘just you’, that you were born that way and it was up to you to change. But maybe it’s not just you; it’s what happened to you, what happened to your parents and grandparents, what’s happening to your child now. But at the time no one was able to help you understand what had happened in your family and help you break the cycle. For a long time, no one knew the harm adverse childhood experiences could cause through generations of a family.

New research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or the bad things that happen in childhood, is rethinking these deterministic ideas. Science is showing how diseases such as depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and anxiety have their roots in childhood abuse and trauma. Importantly, research is discovering the molecular pathways of these diseases and how they begin. Once this is understood, effective treatments can be developed, and awareness raised to protect children and adults from disease and distress in later life.

In 1998 a ground-breaking study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, ‘the CDC and Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study’. 17,500 people were questioned to investigate how childhood abuse, neglect and trauma impacted physical and psychological health in later life. It is one of the largest studies ever done and its results have been generalised into the wider international population. 

So, what are ACEs? Adverse Childhood Experiences are the horrible things children may go through, usually in their homes. The ACEs study had three categories: - 

1.Abuse: physical, emotional and sexual,

2.Neglect: emotional and physical

3.Household dysfunction: mental illness, incarceration, domestic violence, substance abuse and divorce or separation.  

Using the ACE questionnaire, the study asked each of the 17,500 participants if they had experienced any of the above before age 18. Under 18 was specified as the brain is still developing and is exceptionally sensitive to the words and actions of the caregivers.  

The results of the study were shocking, 67% of the study cohort had experienced one ACE and 12.6% had suffered 4 or more ACEs. The results went on to show that children who had suffered ACEs were far more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, hepatitis, depression, anxiety, lung cancer, obesity and have a decreased life expectancy. In fact, ACEs were strongly correlated with problems in every area of life, and the more ACEs a person had suffered the higher and more serious the correlation became.  

At birth a baby’s brain is ¼ of its full size but nearly all the neurons she will ever have are in place. In the next three years the brain will grow rapidly and by age 3 be 90% complete. The neurons in the brain absorb and learn everything they see, hear and feel. They grow and fade depending on what they experience, or don’t. Unfortunately, there is a lot of toxicity in our world today and this often changes babies’ brains in ways we are just beginning to understand. A baby’s brain prunes neurons that are not used and coats the roots of those that are used in Myelin, an insulating substance, to protect them. Pathways develop between neurons to cope with the environment, when the environment is toxic the changes can be maladaptive and affect the child throughout her life.  

Continuous stress, whether from witnessing domestic violence or from frequent beatings is exceptionally toxic to a young child, especially if there is no respite, and no one to contain the emotion. The release of cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, becomes unregulated and large doses of this and other hormones rush around uncontrolled, in the process they cause damage to the brain that is not easily repaired. Although the exact process is unclear it seems the innate immune system is changed, that is our front line of defense against disease and also how we cope with illness and facilitate recovery. Chronic stress can change DNA pathways and gene expression, that is, some gene functions can be switched off or on causing problems throughout life.

As the child grows the damage and changes become apparent and can affect every aspect of life, from maintaining friendships, school achievement, emotional stability, adult relationships, addictions, risky behaviour, including teen pregnancy, mental illness and chronic physical disease including early death. Often a child grows up having experienced several ACEs but as an adult doesn’t link them to why they are constantly ill or behave as they do, they’ll think, ‘it’s just me’ and carry on. Unless you are aware of the potential to change you simply cannot change.

This is part of the intergenerational cycle of ACEs just a point in the cycle.

The child grows up and marries, has a child, the relationship fails, the father screams abuse at the mother, the mother becomes depressed and begins to drink more, she loses her job and there is no money. Already the new baby is suffering several ACEs and his chances of living a healthy and happy life decrease. The child grows up suffering depression and anxiety and the cycle begins again. This may sound fantastical, but these outcomes are directly correlated to ACEs, and are extremely common.  

The research is not about parents being blamed for the child’s problems, it’s about educating people to understand what adversity in childhood (ACEs) is and the damage ACEs can do. If you think about it, these parents are just kids with ACEs who got bigger, they didn’t grow out of anything, they grew into it. They didn’t know the effect ACEs would have on their lives and couldn’t possibly know how those effects would affect their children.  

Sometimes the effects of certain ACEs can be passed on to children genetically; a parent couldn’t possibly stop this even if they were knowledgeable and aware of the chance. When a baby was conceived it used to be thought that its DNA was wiped clean, all the genes were clear of any ‘memories’, but it was discovered that if a mother had suffered domestic abuse whilst pregnant, for example, some of the baby’s genes could carry that knowledge forward, the abuse would be remembered genetically and the same damage could occur as if the domestic abuse was happening to the child.  

If a parent suffered ACEs whist young, it is highly likely their parents also suffered from some kind of adversity in childhood. And this pattern probably stretches back for generations; and it’s almost impossible to break out of this cycle unless you have help. One reason for this has always been that ‘young parents’, ‘drug addicts’, ‘unemployed’, ‘drunks’, ‘wife beaters’ etc. were seen to be just ‘like that’, ‘it’s how they were born’, ‘it was their fault’ and nothing could be done unless ‘they grew a backbone’ or ‘found God’. They were labelled ‘ bad ones’ and left to get on with life, often landing in jail, or addiction or jobless and then early death. Hence the children and grandchildren of these ‘bad ones’ suffered from depressed, ill, violent and absent parents because the adversity in the parents’ childhood was never addressed and so the cycle continued.

Although it has been over twenty years since the links between childhood abuse and neglect was first made, the molecular pathways of how this changed children’s brains to cause physical and psychological problems was still unclear. Now this is changing, there are scientific breakthroughs every day on the pathways disease takes and how. The barriers surrounding mental health are falling and awareness is rising, it is becoming easier to talk about mental illness and its possible genesis.  

Awareness is one of the most important things, spreading the message of the ACEs movement, so that everyone in a community knows about the potential damage ACEs can do. We can encourage each other and our friends, who may be silently suffering, to go to workshops to learn about ACEs and how to help each other talk about our childhood and understand what may have happened. When everyone starts talking, a subject stop being taboo, and people start to realize they can seek help. It is often be like the proverbial light bulb being switched on and sometimes it may be very painful.

But the very best thing is that if everyone is aware of the effects ACEs and how common they are, we can break that intergenerational cycle! We know that talking therapies help, a good psychotherapist can help work through the trauma and help change behaviours for the parent and child, and grandparents. Once parents understand that their behaviours and illnesses are correlated to their own ACEs, they can understand their own child’s behavioural, emotional and academic problems. Then they can be helped to make a choice: whether to replicate the past or to make a change. Once that choice is made, they can be supported through it. There are excellent parenting courses, relationship counsellors and community workers to give a listening ear and a safe place to practice change and create a coherent narrative of their lives and understand and process what has happened to them.

Although change is harder the older you are due to the plasticity (ability to grow and change) of the brain slowing down it is never too late! Scientists are finding ways to increase the brains plasticity as we age so that our brains can create new pathways and change can be permanent. This is important as Grandparents who may care for the grandchildren of their addicted, depressed, incarcerated offspring need to understand their own ACEs story and be able to parent differently this time around.


Babies born with altered genes due to parents who have suffered ACEs can grow up healthily as long as the parents have recognized and accepted their own ACEs and sought help to change. If a mother or father is helped to be attuned and mindful towards their infant and enough money is available to make the family feel safe the baby’s harmful genes can be switched back on or off depending on need. The cycle of harm is then broken.


For practitioners and individuals working and living in the community there is a wealth of ACEs continued professional development (CPD) out there alongside ACEs course study and information for more in-depth learning.  Together the ACEs movement can break these intergenerational cycles so that families can have a future, grieve their past, heal and move forward.

Copyright 2019 College of Life

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