The negative effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on the health and development of children have been well known in the field of pediatrics for a long time. This topic has recently come back into the public spotlight in the wake of the tragic separation of children from their parents at the southern border of the United States. Given these events, it is important to remind ourselves of the impact of such traumatic events on these children and on the countless other children within the United States who fall victim to similar stressors.
What is an Adverse Childhood Experience?
ACEs can be thought of as anything that causes toxic stress. As described by the Harvard Center on Childhood Development, toxic stress involves experiences of strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity that can negatively affect a child’s physical and mental health . These stressful experiences are often worsened by poor social support systems for the child. The Kaiser ACE study looked at 3 types of adverse experience that could lead to toxic stress: abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), neglect, and household challenges (substance abuse, mental illness, violent treatment of partner, parental separation, or member of household sent to prison) .
What is the impact of ACEs?
The Kaiser ACE Study looked at surveys of over 17,000 people between 1995 and 1997 that asked questions regarding their childhood experiences, current health status, and behaviors . Almost two-thirds of adults surveyed had at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. This study continues today through the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which, as of 2014, has the participation of 14 states and the District of Columbia . Most importantly these studies consistently show a dose-response relation between ACEs and negative health and well-being outcomes. This means the more ACEs you had as a child, the more likely you were to have negative outcomes as an adult, such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes, asthma, depression, disability, and unemployment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the lifetime costs associated with child maltreatment are about $124 billion .
What can we do to help as pediatricians and as citizens?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for alleviating childhood stressors focus on 3 major areas: identifying stressors, connecting to community resources, and advocacy [4,5].
As pediatricians, we often have insufficient time to spend with our patients and their families, but, as evidenced above, it is incredibly important that we make the identification of outside stressors an integral part of our social histories. Child safety, substance use, and sexual activity are generally well screened for, but parental health and societal barriers are less common screening questions. Some examples of important questions to include for parents and caregivers are :
- Food security: Are there times when you don’t have enough food?
- Income: Do you ever have trouble making ends meet?
- Housing: Is housing ever a problem for you?
- Supplemental Child Care: Is your child in Head Start, preschool or other childhood programs? Are you pulled away from caring for your child too much by your job or other responsibilities?
- Parental Mental Health: Do you take medication for a mental health condition or have you ever been diagnosed with one?
All questions should be posed in a non-judgmental way with an emphasis on the pediatrician’s ability to connect the family with helpful services. In an ideal world, we as pediatricians should be aware of the resources available to our patients’ families, but in reality our attention and time may be stretched too thin to accommodate such constantly-changing information. An incredibly helpful resource for families and pediatricians is 2-1-1. This is a nation-wide service provided by United Way to connect families with local resources such as food pantries, crisis centers, and housing support . Families with identified problems can call 2-1-1 for assistance or www.211.org can be pulled up in the pediatrician’s office for directories of available resources in the area.
Advocacy can be taken up by pediatricians and citizens alike. As a new pediatrician, I am already incredibly frustrated by the lack of resources and societal support for my patients and their families. It is so disheartening to see news like the tragic separation of children from their families at the border when the terrible effects of such adverse childhood experiences have been well known for so long. The takeaway message I would like to stress to any readers of this post is that childhood welfare is not partisan. Government funds will not be wasted on this issue, and children will not be made lazy by receiving assistance. Increased childhood welfare could alleviate many causes of ACEs which lead to suffering and wasted human potential on an incredible scale. I implore any readers to find an issue they feel passionately about, and look for ways to help. These may include registering to vote, writing your representatives, supporting child advocacy campaigns on social media, making donations or volunteering for local charities like food banks, shelters, or child care centers. For information on advocacy issue you may visit the websites below for more information.
Benjamin Masserano, MD