How Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect the Developing Brain

Researchers like Dr. Nadine Burke Harris have recognized the negative impacts that adverse childhood experiences can have on health. But now we understand more about the resiliency factors as well.

Unfortunately, not all kids have the same experiences growing up. While some have a comfortable, relatively happy home life, others have to deal with situations like poverty, violence, or death of others at a young age.


Dr. Nadine Burke Harris was the first to bring the term “adverse childhood experience” or ACE into the mainstream with her September 2014 TED talk that has received over two million views. She describes how too many stressors (especially those invoked by parents) as a child can have real impacts on the developing brain. Later, those impacts can show up as heart disease or lung cancer:

If you know or work with a child who has gone through challenging times, it’s a natural instinct to want to help them. But perhaps you’re not really sure what to do, what would really help. New research might have some ideas about what's needed in those situations in order for children to become resilient.

It appears as though kids who have gone through four or more ACEs have a higher likelihood of both physical and mental health problems down the road. But, the child’s “family, social, and community assets” were critical to helping him or her thrive despite the challenges. Those are some broad categories, but the research specifically mentions factors such as strong maternal mental health and “patient-centered, coordinated medical care” as some of the most important factors in the findings.

Research has also connected a marker of diabetes control with ACEs and levels of parent education. Children whose parents had at least a high school diploma were less likely to have high levels of the diabetes control marker when compared to children whose parents did not complete high school education. It looks as though for many different health factors, how you grow up matters.

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