Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have been in the news often in recent years. Learning about the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences on your child’s developing brain might feel overwhelming and troubling when parenting a foster or adopted child. But there is good news. You can put protective factors in place to help your child overcome the ACEs in his story.

What Are ACEs?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are extremely stressful events that can happen to a child growing up. Common examples of ACEs would be divorce in his family of origin, any abuse or neglect suffered by the child, or living in an environment of household dysfunction.

These traumas are so stressful for the child that they can impact his brain development. As a result of these painful experiences, the child’s physical and emotional health are affected both in childhood and as he grows into adulthood.

How Are ACEs Calculated?

A child’s ACE score is calculated by adding up the number of events he has experienced on the 10-question survey. The higher the score, the more likely that child will experience significant health or social development impact. ACEs are no respecter of person, race, or socioeconomic status – they occur across all demographics.

For a deeper understanding of ACEs and how they impact a child’s health and well-being, both short and long-term, start with this TedTalk by Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris. You can also check out Aces Too High, a website dedicated to the most recent news and information about ACE scores.

As adoptive and foster parents, it’s important to remember that the fact that our children have been removed from or separated from their original family of birth counts as an adverse childhood event. For our children who have had traumatic experiences before or after that separation, the scores might be even higher. You can take the test to learn your score and your child’s.

Do High ACE Scores Mean My Child is Doomed?

The ACE score is a guideline for understanding what your child has experienced and how it might impact him. There are significant impacts that research has linked to high scores. But, again, the good news is that your child’s high ACE score does not mean his adulthood is automatically doomed for illness and terrible emotional or social experiences. We have a saying in the Creating a Family community: “ACEs are not destiny.”

There are protective factors* – actions you can take and tools you can access – that will help your child overcome his history of adverse childhood experiences.

7 Protective Factors To Help Kids Overcome High ACEs Scores

  1. Safe, Stable Nurturing Environment – Create a safe, warm, and loving home for your child. Think about the physical environment of your house – is it an inviting and comforting place to call home? Also, consider the tone and culture of the relationships and dynamics within your home.
  2. The Power Of One – Just one positive relationship with a caring adult can be a turning point toward resilience for a child. Parents who are warm, safe, stable, and supportive can help him overcome the impact of stressful childhood experiences.
  3. Clear and Fair Expectations – Ensure your child knows the boundaries and “house rules.” Find ways to “set him up for success” to meet those expectations.
  4. Professional Help – Trauma-informed or adoption-informed therapy can help parents and kids talk through the obstacles ACEs create for a child and give you tools to build a healthy attachment together.
  5. School Involvement – Academics are, of course, necessary for our kids. But the environment of a school setting can be a protective factor for kids with high ACEs, even if academics are not the priority.
  6. Peer Connections – Quality friendships, particularly having a “best friend,” positively impact self-esteem for kids who have experienced trauma. Peer connection is especially crucial for our tweens and teens. Extracurricular activities can also protect your child by participating in activities where your child feels competent and can enjoy with friends.
  7. Religion and Spirituality – A spiritual life can also be a protective factor for your child. He can participate in an organized religious community like your local church or youth group. If organized religion is not for him, teach him to cultivate a general sense of spirituality in which he feels part of a “bigger purpose” to help him look beyond his current circumstances.

Resources for Finding An Adoption Therapist

It’s Not Too Late to Overcome High ACEs

No matter how late in childhood your child has come to your home, and even if your child has scored all ten points on the ACEs survey, you have an incredible opportunity to help your child overcome his negative experiences. Your love and support can provide positive experiences that unlock his capacity to recover from those toxic stressors of his past. Together you can change the trajectory of his life.

*Source:  Center for the Study of Social Policy

Image Credits: Marc Davis; David Goehring