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ACEs and How They Link to Toxic Stress in a Child

Most of us— no matter who we are or where we come from—have experienced some level of adversity in our lives. However, there are wide ranges in the type, severity, and frequency of adversity.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events that children experience before age 18, such as violence at home, neglect, abuse, or having a parent with mental illness or substance dependence. Toxic stress happens when there is high or frequent exposure to ACEs without the buffering support of a caring adult.

  • 34.8 million

    children in the US
    affected by ACEs

  • 2 out of 3

    adults have
    1 or more ACEs

  • 1 out of 8

    adults have
    4 or more ACEs

The Impact of Toxic Stress on a Child

Toxic stress happens when there is exposure to intense, frequent, or sustained stress without the buffering care of a supportive adult can change children’s brains and bodies, including disrupting learning, behavior, immunity, growth, hormonal systems, immune systems, and even the way DNA is read and transcribed.

  • Nervous System

    Disruption to the developing brain, including changes to the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala, may lead to an increase in risk of cognitive impairment, attention deficits, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, self-regulation, memory and attention, and anxiety.

  • Cardiovascular System

    Toxic stress can increase a person’s risk of developing high blood pressure, elevating levels of inflammation that can damage the arteries and lead to heart disease, stroke and other serious health issues later in life.

  • Immune System

    Higher risk of infection and autoimmune disease may occur due to chronic inflammation and other factors causing changes in the body’s natural immune defense responses.

  • Endocrine System

    Toxic stress can impact growth and development. It can also lead to obesity and changes in the timing of puberty as well as other issues.

How to Address the Impact of Toxic Stress
Early Intervention

Screening for ACEs in children as early as possible and providing children and their families with the support services they need are critical steps to heal existing harm and prevent future harm to children’s brains and bodies caused by toxic stress.

Safe & Sound is working to educate and equip pediatricians with tools to both screen and provide interventions for ACEs so children and families can heal and grow together.

Protective Factors and Domains of Wellness

Research has shown that family strengths and skills can mitigate the long-term, harmful effects of toxic stress and prevent child abuse. We work to strengthen five Protective Factors and build skills in seven Domains of Wellness to build resilience and buffer the effects of toxic stress in all members of a family. With these strengths and skills, family members have the opportunity to be as happy and healthy as possible.