How Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Affect Mental Health & Adult Relationships

Family can be a rock of social support and comfort. But for many, it can also be a word that brings back negative memories. We may remember the good times - running around carefree and taking family pictures for Christmas cards. But we may equally have memories we've tried to forget. Psychologists call these tragic, terrifying moments experienced during childhood Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s). These events can actually affect brain development, physical, and mental health (Bryant et al, 2020). 

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What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Adverse Childhood Experiences include childhood abuse, domestic violence and other forms of household dysfunction that have been associated with development of PTSD, borderline personality disorder, dissociative symptoms and depression (Chapman et al., 2004). These can lead to more than just mental illnesses; certain childhood experiences can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and lung disease (Howes, 2019). 


A recent study in North Carolina wanted to see if ACE’s were statistically significant predictors of poor mental health in adulthood. With over 44 million US adults affected by mental illness (Mwachofi et al., 2020), there was something affecting adults more than just poverty rates and socio-economic status. In fact, evidence suggests that ACEs could be a contributing factor to poor behavior in adulthood and might affect more than 60% of adults (Mwachofi et al., 2020). Researchers started out their hypothesis believing that there was no difference in adulthood mental health of an ACE-affected adult and unaffected adult. By taking data from the 2012 and 2014 NC Behavioral Risk FActor Surveillance System, researchers were able to see mental health differences between ACE-affected and unaffected adults. Some statistics from the ACE-affected adult’s results were:

From that data, they found that ACE-affected adults experienced significantly more days of poor mental health and had a higher likelihood of depression diagnosis than the unaffected adults. Ultimately, they found that ACe’s were indeed statistically significant predictors of poor mental health in adulthood.


Adverse Childhood Experiences in COVID-19

One sad secondary consequence of the pandemic has been the rise in ACE’s due to shutdowns and families being stuck indoors with abusive family members. The Administration of Children and Families found a terrifying statistic: more than 78% of child abuse and neglect is perpretrated by the children’s parents (Bryant et al., 2020). Google searches of phrases related to parents abusing children and how to report and identify child abuse have risen due to the pandemic. Due to parents losing jobs and developing anxiety and stress, some turn toward unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance use and alcohol. With over 22 million unemployment claims in just one month, parents are struggling more than ever with mental health problems. This sadly trickles down to their children. 


When the pandemic ends (hopefully soon), it is important to keep in mind what children have possibly experienced over the pandemic. Mental health care for children is essential, but it may be even more impactful to ensure parents have healthy coping mechanisms/strategies. Workplaces and parents must understand how detrimental and lasting their influences can be on children. Only by working on their own mental health can they help the next generation.  


Parental Divorce as an ACE

In 1980, the United States divorce rate was at a strikingly high 50%. In 2018, the divorce rate reduced to around 39% which is unfortunately, still high.  However, what happens to the children of those divorced parents? It becomes even worse when a child has to choose who to go with at a young age, creating stress and anxiety in their life. It also affects their ideas of what a healthy, happy relationship looks like, making their own relationships more difficult . In fact, women whose parents divorced are more likely to enter marriage with a lower commitment and confidence raising their risk for divorce (Whitton, 2008). Unfortunately, childhood parental divorce was associated with depression and drinking due to the parent-relationships and child adversity (Dagdas et al., 2021). 

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A study focused on the effects of early divorce and how it affects parent-children relationships, alcohol consumption and depressive symptoms among adult children. By taking individuals that have experienced parental divorce under the age of 16 (220 participants) and individuals with both parents (1840), participants were asked to fill out the Americans’ Changing Lives survey. This survey was used to see the emotional and mental health states of those with divorced parents. The results showed that childhood parental divorce is associated with depression and drinking. Also, parental divorce was associated with adult daughters’ drinking and depressive symptoms, suggesting that women are more vulnerable regarding early-life stressors (Dagdas et al., 2021)


How Mental Resilience Can Help

Young Adult Children of Alcoholics (YACOA) are sadly prone to emotional psychopathy and end up growing up in terrible mental health states (low scores of self-efficacy, resilience) compared to those without alcoholic parents. 

However, researchers found that some children remained healthy and led a productive life despite growing up experiencing adverse experiences (Hebbani et al., 2020). What promoted these positive results against all odds? The answer: Resilience.


In a longitudinal study, a sample size of 1555 adult college students, 512 were identified as Young Adult Children of Alcoholics. Researchers used 6 questionnaires/scales to measure their background, mental health, and resilience. Here are a few they used:

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The sample size was then divided into a high and low resilience group based on the median scores of the scales. YACOA with high resilience scores were healthy, had good family and community support and had higher self-acceptance. YACOA with low resilience unfortunately were not as healthy, had difficulty keeping close relationships, and had lower self efficacy. 


Family Estrangement

Unfortunately, adverse childhood experiences can lead to family estrangement - cutting ties with family after experiencing traumatic family events. In a recent article, it showed a survey of young adults (college and graduate students), showing that about 17 percent experienced estrangement from an immediate family member, most commonly from the father (Savvy, 2020). There isn’t much research on the topic of family estrangement because not many people want to really talk about their family situations. But in the article, researchers shared four things about family estrangement and how to mend family ties. They found that:

That last segment that researchers found was interesting because when we cut ties from our family, we believe that it was the right thing to do in the first place. Realistically however, we do tend to go back to communicating with our parents. Only 29% of children who have cut off their mothers have really kept the estrangements (Savvy, 2020). Humans have the natural instinct to connect to people, and when you lose that close connection, you yearn for it to come back. But how do you mend those ties once they’re broken? During family estrangement, you should try to accept what you can’t control; it could be your parent’s personality, your environment. But once you try and accept what you cannot control, be ready to give/accept second chances (Savvy, 2020). 

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How LIFE Intelligence Can Support

Being able to communicate with your family about traumatic experiences can be difficult, and even an invasion of personal space. For serious matters such as generational trauma, we highly suggest you find a licensed professional that specializes in family therapy.

If you're still in the beginning stages of exploring your childhood or adult relationships, LIFE Intelligence is a coping skills app that can be a small step in the right direction. The app provides helpful information, backed by science, to better understand your thought patterns, emotional reactions, life story, and relationship attachments. LIFE consists of two parts. First is a 9-mission (topic) program that explains the nuances behind our mental health, life decisions, social influences, and attachments to parents and loved ones. Second is a mood tracking and mood management component to help us navigate stressful situations. Whether panic, grief, contempt, or resentment, you can work through these intense negative feelings with the help of LIFE's therapy and coaching content.

Learning healthy coping mechanisms, perspective thinking, and incorporating narrative therapy can help you and your parents understand each other’s experiences. Often, adverse childhood experiences in one generation get passed down to the next. By understanding ourselves and our families, we can take steps to stop the cycle.

David Lee
February 26, 2021

References

Mwachofi, A., Imai, S., Bell, R. A. (2020). Adverse childhood experiences and mental health in adulthood: Evidence from North Carolina. Journal of Affective Disorders, 267, 251-257. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.02.021

Bryant, D. J, Oo, M., Damian, A. J. (2020). The Rise of Adverse Childhood Experiences during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Psychological Trauma, 12(1), 193-194. 

Chapman, D. P., Whitfield, C. L., Felitti, V. J., Dube, S. R., Edwards, V. J., Anda, R. F. (2004). Adverse childhood experiences and the risk of depressive disorders in adulthood. Journal of Affective Disorders, 82(2), 217-225. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2003.12.013.

Howes, R. (2019). How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime. Psychotherapy Networker.https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/1636/how-childhood-trauma-affects-health-across-a-lifetime

 Savvy,  J. W. (2020). Family Estrangement: Why Families Cut Ties and How to Mend Them. Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/family-estrangement-why-families-cut-ties-and-how-to-mend-them/

Hebbani, S., Ruben, J. P., Selvam, S., Krishnamachari, S. (2020). A study of resilience among young adult children of alcoholics in Southern India. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 38(3), 339-347. https://doi.org/10.1080/10550887.2020.1765716

Dagdas, T. B. (2020). Early parental divorce across the life course: parent-child relationships, women’s drinking, and mental health problems. Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, 16(1), 50-58. https://doi.org/10.1080/17450128.2020.1837408

Wang, W. (2020). The U.S. Divorce Rate Has Hit a 50-Year Low. IFS, https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-us-divorce-rate-has-hit-a-50-year-low#:~:text=Divorce%20in%20America%20has%20been,have%20seen%20in%2050%20years.

Belinda, L. (208). The Divorce Rate is Dropping. That May Not Actually Be Good News. Time, https://time.com/5434949/divorce-rate-children-marriage-benefits/

Witton, S. (2008) Effects of Parental Divorce on Marital Commitment and Confidence. J Family Psychology, 22(5), 789-793, doi: 10.1037/a0012800

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