The long term impact of negative childhood experiences

Paul Whalley reports on a new film that helps us understand the long-lasting effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

Boy waiting at bus stopI attended the British premiere of the film Resilience: the biology of stress and the science of hope in London’s West End. I want to share what it was about, how it presented some important science and explain why professionals need to know about it.

The film is a documentary highlighting ground-breaking research about the impact of ACEs on children throughout their whole lives. ACEs are traumatic situations and events in a child’s life which can have long-term negative effects on their health and well-being. As well as all forms of abuse and neglect, ACEs include experiences such as parental substance misuse, parental mental health problems or having a parent or carer in prison. The film beautifully crafts together statistics and first-hand testimony.

The impact of adverse childhood experiences

The film featured the ground-breaking research carried out by Felitti and Anda in the 1990s (Felitti et al, 1998). Their findings suggested a link between ACEs and poor physical and mental health outcomes in later life. These include depression, anxiety, obesity, addiction, heart disease, cancer and liver disease. The first wave of the research was greeted with scepticism at the time, so the second wave included a much bigger sample. In total, both studies gathered data from 17,000 people and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still follows up the participants to update the research (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017).

In the film Dr Anda suggests that although we deal with physical health and mental health separately, the body holds them together. The mind may accept and process trauma but the body remembers.

ACEs and stress

In the film Dr Nadine Burke Harris, a local doctor in a ‘poor’ neighbourhood of San Francisco, provides the case for understanding how ACEs link to stress. She’s a passionate advocate for working out how ACEs are related to the health challenges her patients experience, including parents who have experienced four or more ACEs themselves - and their children.

She urges professionals to look for the causes of stress rather than simply trying to provide solutions for its symptoms. If someone goes to the doctor with a sore throat, she explains, they might be prescribed a medicine to stop it hurting; but if the person has tuberculosis this is just masking the deeper problem. In the same way, ACEs may well be the deeper problem which needs to be tackled. By doing this, practitioners can improve the lives of children and families.

Public health approach

After the film the distributor Chris Hurd interviewed director James Redford and Dr Graham Music of the Tavistock and Portman clinic. Redford described how he was inspired by the people he met who were working to challenge the stress created by ACEs in the lives of parents and children. He felt that this research needs to be shared, to challenge the view that “you can just choose to get over bad experiences”. He feels we need a broader approach to tackling ACEs, in local communities, non-profit organisations and at a national leadership level.

Dr Music has been interested in ACEs since 2008. His vision is for schools, GPs and local community organisations to work together to address this major public health issue. He emphasised the importance of providing solutions for parents who have themselves experienced ACEs, to help them address the impact of this on their families. Everyone who has experienced ACEs needs care, love and compassion.

Tickets The film is being screened throughout the UK. I would recommend it to anybody. It will give you a better understanding of the challenges that many parents are facing and how to work with them to solve the root causes of their health problems. It also demonstrates the importance of having a public health approach to help solve what might at first seem like a private problem.

The film gave me hope and confidence about the work we do in the children’s social care sector. By adopting its concepts in our work we can make even more difference to children and families.

More information
Watch the trailer for the film or find out how the NSPCC supports children and parents who are affected by ACEs.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017) About the CDC-Kaiser ACE study. [Accessed 06/11/2017]

  2. Felitti, V.J. et al. (1998) Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. American journal of preventive medicine, 14 (4): 245-258.