As pediatricians, we often care for children that may have had exposures to neglect, maltreatment, family violence, family separation or extreme poverty. Over time, we see the negative consequences of these experiences on our patients in the form of poor academic success, substance abuse, and medical and mental health problems. These experiences are termed adverse childhood experiences or ACEs and it is estimated that about 60% of the adult population in the United States has experienced at least one ACE. Pediatricians should identify and attempt to prevent ACEs: we can support and coordinate efforts to build resilience in children by understanding the effect of toxic stress and providing early interventions and continuity in care.
The hallmark ACE study conducted in 1998 by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente in California categorized ACEs into three major categories: physical and emotional abuse, neglect and household dysfunction (e.g., parent with mental illness, substance abuse or experiencing separation or divorce). The study showed dramatic associations between ACEs and risky behavior, psychological illnesses, serious illness and even a lower life expectancy in the children.
In a child’s life, experiencing ACEs can lead to toxic stress. Toxic stress occurs when a child stays in a constant state of elevated stress. Often children have a caregiver to give them comfort during normal times of stress. In these cases, the levels of stress hormones will return to baseline. However, when no supportive caregiver can comfort the child, such as in cases of neglect, emotional or physical abuse, the child’s stress hormone level remains high. This can affect other aspects of a child’s health and development.
The link between adverse childhood experiences and adult health and well-being has been well studied. We know that as the brain develops, more frequently used circuits are strengthened, while those that are not used can eventually fade away in a process called pruning. Stronger circuits are associated with higher-level functioning, improved memory, emotional and behavioral regulation and language. In children exposed to toxic stress, the circuits are weaker and fewer, especially in the areas of the brain dedicated to learning and reasoning. For example, the excessive stress activation shifts mental and physiological resources from long-term development to immediate survival. This increases the task of vigilance at the expense of focused attention. Ultimately, poor coping habits and mental health problems can develop. We also know that the exposure to stress hormone increases systemic inflammation which contributes to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes among other medical problems. Finally, evidence shows that the longer we wait to intervene, the more difficult it is to achieve healthy outcomes.
The concept of resiliency explains why some children overcome stress better than others. As pediatricians, understanding this concept can help us to build stronger individuals. Resiliency is thought to be related to a greater number of positive experiences compared to negative experiences. We know that a very important part of developing resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive caregiver. Promoting regular physical exercise, stress-reduction exercises and promoting strong core life skills for both the child and the adult are additional ways pediatricians can promote resiliency.
Trauma-informed care involves prevention, recognition and response to trauma-related experiences. Early identification is an important first step. As pediatricians, we should consider ACEs-based screening questionnaires for every patient to assess the potential need for other services. The next step would be to link these patients with services such as social work, developmental therapies, or mental health support with experience in trauma. This is often the most difficult part in delivering trauma-informed care, so it is important to identify the resources available in the local area.
Finally, to address prevention, we should work with our families to reduce the stress of daily life, such as connecting them to resources like food pantries or substance abuse programs. We should teach skills to families regarding parenting and safe dating practices. To promote strong relationships with other adult caregivers, we should be know of available after-school and mentoring programs. The overall goal should focus on changing the environment and behaviors in ways that will prevent ACEs from happening in the first place.
Amisha Patel M.D.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). http://www.cdc.gov.foyer.swmed.edu/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html. Accessed February 5, 2020.