What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Posted by: Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP

What are ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences?

I (Dr. D’Arienzo) was recently involved as a defense expert (Forensic Psychologist) in a U.S. Military case regarding mitigation for a court-martial sentencing hearing. I assisted the defense by testifying about how the accussed had been impacted by a series of ACEs that created a chronic stress condition which impacted his decision making as a young adult. At the same time, I also explored how some of these experiences, with the right future environment, also led to resilient character traits that improved his rehabilitative potential. Generally, we know from the literature that having four or more ACEs is associated with deleterious mental and physical problems, criminalistic behaviors, as well as a shortened lifespan; while at the same time, for some people, these experiences lead to a toughing that is not always negative. The most commonly researched Adverse Childhood Experiences are:

Conventional ACEs:
Physical abuse
Emotional abuse
Physical neglect
Emotional neglect
Sexual abuse
Violence toward mother
Substance abuse in household
Household mental illness
Household member incarcerated
Parental separation or divorce

Expanded ACEs:
Witnessed violence
Unsafe neighborhood

adverse childhood experiences

More About Adverse Childhood Experiences:
Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are traumatic experiences that children may encounter during their formative years that can have long-lasting effects on their physical and mental health. These experiences can range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, and other traumatic events. The more ACEs a child experiences, the higher the likelihood of negative outcomes later in life.

Studies have shown that ACEs can have a significant impact on a child’s brain development, leading to increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This prolonged stress response can alter the development of the brain’s architecture, particularly in areas responsible for memory, learning, and emotional regulation. These changes can lead to a higher risk of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

One of the most significant factors in ACEs is abuse, which can have long-lasting effects on a child’s mental and physical health. Children who experience physical abuse can suffer from physical injuries, such as bruises and broken bones, as well as long-term effects such as chronic pain and muscle tension. Emotional abuse can be just as damaging, causing low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety that can last well into adulthood.

Neglect is another common ACE that can affect a child’s physical and mental well-being. Children who experience neglect may suffer from malnutrition, lack of adequate medical care, and poor hygiene, leading to physical health problems such as weakened immune systems and stunted growth. The emotional effects of neglect can include feelings of abandonment and isolation, which can lead to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Household dysfunction is another factor that can contribute to ACEs. This can include substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, divorce, or incarceration of a family member. Children who experience household dysfunction may feel unsafe and insecure in their homes, which can lead to emotional problems such as anxiety and depression. They may also struggle with social interactions and have difficulty forming healthy relationships later in life.

ACEs can also be caused by traumatic events such as witnessing violence, disasters, or accidents. Children who experience traumatic events may suffer from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), which can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

Despite the potential negative effects of ACEs, there are ways to mitigate their impact. Early identification and intervention can help children and families recover from ACEs and build resilience. Supportive environments, such as safe and stable homes, nurturing relationships, and access to health care, can also help prevent the effects of ACEs.

In summary, adverse childhood experiences can have a long-lasting impact on a child’s physical and mental health. ACEs can include abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, and other traumatic events. The more ACEs a child experiences, the higher the likelihood of negative outcomes later in life. Early intervention and support can help mitigate the effects of ACEs and promote better outcomes for children and adults. It is essential to raise awareness of the impact of ACEs and work towards creating supportive environments that can help prevent them.

If you need a psychological expert for a court-martial or criminal case regarding mitigation and/or to assist with the defense or prosecution in any way, we have several Forensic Psychologists available at D’Arienzo Psychology. Contact us at 904-379-8094 or [email protected]

As of summer 2023 we have five forensic psychological experts that can assist you with your cases. Contact us at 904-379-8094 or [email protected] for more information.

Dr. Justin D’Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP
Dr. Amy Hartley, Ph.D.
Dr. Erica Janson, Psy.D.
Dr. Michael Nackashi, Psy.D.
Dr. Ellen Williams, Ph.D.