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Sara Coffey, D.O.

Assistant Clinical Professor and Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences

Addressing the Impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences

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Creating environments where all children can thrive is critical to building a healthier and happier future. In this article, Sara Coffey, D.O., a member of the National Council’s Medical Directors Institute, shares her insights into childhood trauma and thoughts on support systems.

More and more, we are learning about the significance of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on our overall health. These include, but are not limited to, emotional, sexual and physical abuse; emotional neglect; witnessing domestic violence; and living with a family member who has a mental illness.

Nearly half of all children in the U.S. are exposed to an adverse event in their childhood. This can play a significant role in their mental health and overall wellbeing. A closer look at ACEs reveals the importance of relationships to the human experience. A safe, consistent caregiver is increasingly seen as evident in mitigating risks for young children. Policies and practices that interrupt the caregiving relationship can have unattended consequences that can be detrimental to children.

As early as the 1950’s, James Robertson, a psychiatric social worker, recognized the distress that befell children in a hospital setting, where separation from caregivers was often the rule. This came at a time when it was believed that children could not experience the grief of separation. We know this now to be untrue. Children separated from their families can experience much grief and distress, which can result in long-term negative impacts on their emotional, mental and physical health.

Additionally, as science begins to understand the biology behind multi-generational trauma, we can expect that children and cultures enduring traumatic experiences can “pass them on” to their children and grandchildren. The field of epi-genetics is beginning to understand how trauma “activates” genes that can lead to illness, as well as how these genes can be “handed down” to future generations. As such, practices that target specific populations can have lasting impacts on future youth.

It remains vital for communities to better understand how traumatic experiences can impact a child’s emotional and physical health, both in the immediate and remote future. By fostering safe, supportive environments for children, we can make an important investment in their future and ours.