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Jan 26

The rippling effects of childhood trauma

Posted on January 26, 2019 at 12:55 PM by Katie Combs Prichard

With April being Child Abuse Prevention Month, I thought I’d take the time to talk a bit about ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences. These are stressful or traumatic events that children face, including abuse and neglect.

Traumatic experiences that people face as children – from something as common as parental separation or divorce to rarer crimes like sexual or physical abuse – are shown to create toxic stress and have a ripple effect throughout their lives. About 40 percent of participants in a study by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported experiencing at least two ACEs in their life. NPR actually made a quiz where you can identify what kind of ACEs you may have experienced in your own childhood:

There is an old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But this does not hold true for childhood trauma. People who go through more ACEs are more likely to have social, emotional or cognitive impairment; actual physical changes occur to the brain. Children who suffer trauma are shown to have smaller brain volume in the areas that control memory, learning, emotional regulation and more. They go on to face deeper problems ranging from mental health struggles to substance use disorders, as well a higher level of negative physical indicators such as diabetes and obesity – and they are more likely to have an early death.

It’s true, some children are resilient and able to avoid these negative consequences. Safe and nurturing relationships are key to this, as positive experiences can help counter the negative. As adults, we can strive to make sure that we represent a stable, caring force in a child’s life, and help them know their value and sense of self. Keep an eye out for children showing signs of stress, like being withdrawn or distracted, acting out or even re-enacting traumatic events through play.

Having an understanding of how these ACEs might impact someone into adulthood can also help people process and heal. Having knowledge of how trauma changes the brain has helped the behavioral health community develop strategies to help build up resiliency, including mindfulness practices, without triggering the “fight or flight” mode that is common to trauma survivors.

All children deserve happy childhoods. As we take time this month to pause and recognize the importance of child abuse prevention, let’s remember that the connections we make in our day-to-day lives could be more meaningful than we know.

For more information on what Placer County is doing to address trauma and promote resiliency see the Placer ACEs connection website at

Be Well,

Dr. Rob, Robert Oldham, is Placer County’s public health officer and lives in Roseville. Contact his office at (530-889-7141.