Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Protecting Your Child and Building Resiliency


When protecting your child and building resiliency, it’s important to talk about negative experiences that can lead to toxic stress. Some stress is normal and healthy, but too much can cause problems. We all work hard to stay healthy, and as we all deal with stress, it’s important to learn more and talk about experiences that cause toxic stress, sometimes called Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Watch this video to see how families and communities can help build resiliency in children:

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) measured these Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs:

Exposure to these caregiver behaviors:

  • Humiliating child
  • Insulting child
  • Swearing at child
  • Pushing, grabbing, or slapping child
  • Making a child afraid of being hurt
  • Inappropriate sexual contact
  • Child did not feel loved or cared for
  • Family members not supportive

Exposure to these household issues:

  • Domestic violence
  • Household member with substance abuse
  • Household member with mental illness
  • Household member attempted suicide
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Household member incarcerated

ACEs are Common: In the CDC study, more than 17,000 people participated and more than 60% had been exposed to at least 1 ACE. However, a lot of people had been exposed to more than 1 ACE, and 12% had been exposed to 4 or more ACEs. ACEs cause stress during childhood and can cause problems early on and throughout life. The more ACEs you have been exposed to, the higher your risk for several problems including the following:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Depression
  • Suicide attempts
  • Poor anger control
  • Smoking
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Fetal death

Though the CDC didn’t measure other ACEs, some do exist. They include witnessing community violence, poverty, homelessness, bulling by peers/siblings/others, and death of a parent.

Without protective factors and the support from strong and nurturing parents, ACEs and toxic stress can lead to unhealthy habits such as poor coping behaviors, overeating, smoking, alcohol use, drug abuse, and early sexual behavior. ACEs may cause genetic changes by turning on or turning off genes that affect health.

What can you do? Parents make a significant difference in the lives of their children!

Think about your early years. Do not be afraid to remember and talk about your own experiences. More than 60% of people report at least 1 ACE. What you have learned about how to overcome adversity and protect yourself may help your children do the same.

Expose your children to healthy experiences and protective factors. One of the most important things a parent can do is spend time with their child and let the child know s/he is loved, has a purpose in life, and people to go to and count on if bad things do happen. This is called building resiliency. Resiliency happens when the child has ‘protective factors’ like a shield to protect them from ACEs. Examples include the following:

Parents who are strong, loving, supportive, and resilient 
Parents who read, rhyme, sing, and talk to their children
Having healthy relationships with parents, other family members, and friends (social network)
Learning good communication skills
Learning why and how to make good choices
Having safe, supportive, and nurturing learning environments
Having good nutrition and the right amount of sleep and exercise
Use appropriate parenting strategies like the ones below:
Teach children how to cope and respond to aggression and how not to be a victim
Use appropriate discipline strategies

Set rules and limits. Children want and need you to teach them what is allowed. Then, if children continue to have challenging behavior:

Redirect children toward positive behaviors
Avoid yelling and screaming
When calm, have discussions about why they should behave a certain way
Be consistent. It is stressful to hear mixed messages. If you do not mean it, do not say it.
Avoid exposure to violence in the media, at home, and in the community. Otherwise, children will learn to think that the violence is normal.
Limit media with a lot of violence

Do not let your child grow up in a home where they are repeatedly exposed to people who are physically or emotionally hurt.

Listen to your child’s needs and fears. You may need to modify daily activities to help them through a rough period. Always
give your child support and reassurance. Let your child know that you and other supportive adults are always available.


Do not feel embarrassed to ask for help. Think about how ACEs affect you and your parenting. If ACEs are causing problems in your home, talk to family members, trusted friends, or a professional. Your pediatrician or health care provider can review your individual situation and recommend resources, as needed.

Other resources:

Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics about ACEs

CDC website about ACEs:

Parent helpline: 1-800-CHILDREN or 1-800-356-6767

Watch this video for ways to help babies recover from toxic stress (Click Here For Spanish Version):