ACEs Can Lead to Risky Behaviors like Substance Abuse


It’s crucial for parents and caregivers to provide kids with a positive and loving environment. Studies show that children who have a number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are at risk of a lifetime of health problems.

ACEs are stressful or traumatic events that can lead to long-term health and emotional problems. They include neglect and all types of abuse, including verbal humiliation. ACEs can also occur when a child sees domestic violence or grows up with family members who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Find a list of ACEs from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

A 2012 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Tennessee Department of Health found that about 52 percent of the statewide population had experienced at least one ACE, and 21 percent had experienced three or more.

How ACEs Affect the Brain

Exposure to these traumatic events without strong adult support causes “toxic stress,” which is very unhealthy for children. Studies show that brain development in children can be damaged by high amounts of stress over a long period. This can affect learning, behavior, and health throughout a lifetime.

Scientists have found that when the developing brain is constantly stressed, it releases a hormone that shrinks the area of the brain that processes emotion and memory and manages stress. Kids whose brains have been changed by ACEs are more likely to become adults who overreact to even minor stress.

Without protective factors and support from loving, positive parents and caregivers, ACEs can lead to unhealthy habits. If a person experiences toxic stress over a long period, studies show that he or she may adopt coping mechanisms such as substance use.

Substance abuse, specifically opioid abuse, has become a crisis in Tennessee, causing over 1,000 deaths in the state in 2016. Learn more about opioid abuse and raising drug-free children.

TN Together is a comprehensive plan and set of resources from the State of Tennessee to address the opioid crisis.

Preventing and Treating the Effects of ACEs

Caring adults make a significant difference in the lives of children. Safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments help children thrive.

Caring adults can help prevent the impact of ACEs by spending time with a child, and letting the child know he or she is loved and has a purpose in life. Help the child think about people they can go to and count on if bad things happen. Learn about more protective factors that can prevent the effects of ACEs.

ACEs can have a long and lasting impact, but there are steps people can take to recover from their effects. Don’t hesitate to contact your health care provider to determine a plan that will help you.

2013 study of 5,000 adults who were part of the original ACEs study in the 1990s found that strategies to promote good health had a positive impact on the ability to heal from toxic stress. An emphasis on four factors—consistent exercise, cutting out smoking, access to emotional support and completion of a high school education (or higher)—led to positive results.

Treatment for Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is a coping mechanism for people who have had ACEs, but support and treatment are available for adults and adolescents. Talk to your health care provider.

Here are some options for treating substance abuse:

If you or your child is having a mental health or substance abuse crisis, you can call Tennessee’s statewide toll-free crisis hotline 24/7 at 855-CRISIS-1 (855-274-7471).

If you have general questions about substance abuse or recovery, call the Tennessee REDLINE 24/7 for free confidential information and referrals at 800-889-9789.

The TDMHSAS’ Adolescent Substance Use Disorders Services Program offers treatment to adolescents 13-18 who may have a substance abuse disorder.

For more information, visit the TDMHSAS.

Additional Resources

See steps parents can take to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Learn more about ACEs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

ACEs Science refers to research on the effects of ACEs and what can be done to prevent them.

See a report about the impact ACEs have on brain development by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

The Tennessee Parent Helpline is a 24/7, toll-free number for families experiencing problems, or if parents just need to talk to someone. Call 800-CHILDREN or 800-356-6767.

It’s OK to Talk About Youth Mental Health: