The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as "potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years)." These may involve forms of neglect, abuse, domestic instability, and violence "that can undermine a child's sense of safety, stability, and bonding."
When a child experiences events or conditions over which they have no control and with little capacity to regulate how they physically and emotionally respond, the result can be long-term biological damage due to chronic toxic stress.
Prolonged activation of the body's stress response can short-circuit the brain's ability to learn which has long term consequences for the individual's future education and the ability to earn a living. In addition, the effects of ACEs are tied to chronic health problems and mental illness, along with substance use problems in adolescence and adulthood.
Studies have shown of toxic stress changes both the brain structure and the genes of the individual. These epigenetic changes impact not only the individual but subsequent generations as well, resulting in incidences of intergenerational and historical trauma While ACES are well-represented in the general population, with at least 2/3 of adults experiencing at least one ACE, additional layers of trauma are transferred to individuals and groups whose lives are further impacted by poverty, racism, discrimination, or oppression.
The impact of ACES across a lifespan has been diagrammed by Dr. Robert Anda (ACE Study co-collaborator) in the pyramid below.