Much of what children experience when they’re young affects how they develop and who they become as adults. Traumatic events in childhood can to lead to chronic health problems, mental health issues and substance abuse later in life. That’s why understanding and preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is so important.

Understanding ACEs

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study describes ACEs as “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0 – 17 years old).” These events include experiencing violence, abuse of any kind and neglect. A traumatic event of violence or abuse may not happen directly to the child; it could be witnessed as well.

The CDC also recognizes an environment that undermines a child’s safety, stability and bonding as contributing to ACE potential. This includes growing up in a household where drug or alcohol abuse is present, mental illness exists in the family, or instability from parental separation or incarceration is a part of the child’s life.

A Serious Problem

Adverse Childhood Experiences are a serious problem affecting millions of children who can go on to struggle in various ways in adulthood. In fact, in the ACE study, the CDC shares some alarming statistics about ACEs in the United States:

  • About 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported experiencing at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.
  • Up to 1.9 million cases of heart disease and 21 million cases of depression could have been potentially avoided by preventing ACEs.
  • Women and several racial/ethnic minority groups were at greater risk for having experienced four or more types of ACEs.

ACEs’ Impact on Health and Development

Beyond contributing to serious chronic health issues such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, the lasting effects from ACEs can range from difficulty maintaining relationships to impacting job potential and stability later in life.

According to the CDC, high levels of stress for children and young adults as a result of ACEs can lead to “struggles with finances, jobs and depression throughout life.” And that stress can “change brain development and affect such things as attention, decision-making, learning and response to stress.”

The Power of Prevention

Preventing the impacts of ACEs on a child’s development depends on how early parents, pediatrician and community resources get involved. Dr. Pradeep Gidwani, pediatrician and San Diego Foundation Board of Governors member, emphasizes the importance of childcare and intervention and sees hope by getting involved early in a child’s development.

“We can have the biggest effect early in life, and the biggest effect we can have is changing the parent-child relationship,” declared Dr. Gidwani.

It is his strong belief that a child’s potential can be unlimited when he/she comes into the world feeling loved and supported, and with parents that encourage social and emotional development.

Prevention and Support Resources

Because of the importance of getting involved early in a child’s development, many resources and programs have been created to assist families who need support. In the San Diego region, this is especially true. Here are some examples:

Expanding Access to Nonprofits

ACEs impact many children, families and service providers that deliver care in San Diego County. That’s why in June 2021, The San Diego Foundation awarded $252,000 in grants to support 11 nonprofit programs in the region. These important programs prevent abuse, provide mental and behavioral health services, support early interventions, address trauma, and increase health equity for young children, ages 0 – 5, and their families. The goal is to ensure that young children have opportunities to thrive and families have access to supportive services. 

Family Health Centers

As part of its Strategic Plan, The San Diego Foundation is committed to building resilient communities by improving mental and behavioral health in our region. That’s why we support Family Health Centers’ focus on the healthy development of young children with multiple ACEs by being there for parents. Family Health Centers of San Diego provides the support groups, resources and information to strengthen family bonds and resilience. With help from the Early Childhood Initiative Resilience Grant at The San Diego Foundation, Family Health Centers has continued its work to provide affordable, high-quality health care and supportive services to all by institutionalizing ACEs screenings for under-resourced and medically underserved families in the region.

The COVID-19 Effect

The COVID-19 pandemic has added more adversity, trauma and family strife for many in San Diego who had already experienced their share of ACEs. Now, more than ever, mental and behavior health resources are integral to assist and help those further impacted by the pandemic.

Learn more about mental and behavioral health resources in San Diego or about our Strategic Plan.