Guest Column: Change must focus on childhood experiences

Published 6:52 pm Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Guest Column by Jenni Braaten

Jenni Braaten


There is a long medical history of charting and tracking the physical growth of children in their formative years. However, over the past 25 years there has been a broadening understanding of how early life experiences impact the mental health of not only children, but when those children become adults. As humans, our emotional development and wellbeing are strongly shaped by our early childhood experiences. An infant’s brain will be approximately 80 percent developed by the age of 3 years old. During this time of intense brain development, the manner in which the child’s needs are met have a lifelong impact on their overall physical, social and emotional wellbeing.

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One may question how this is possible or if it is scientifically founded. Between 1995-1997, Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collected data via a confidential survey from over 17,000 adults receiving annual physical exams. This landmark study is called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey or ACES. It included 10 yes or no questions and asked participants about their childhood experiences with questions such as witnessing domestic violence, being a victim of physical abuse or having a parent with mental illness. Each “yes” answer equated to one ACE, and the sum of all the ACES gave a potential score from zero to 10.

The findings of this study demonstrated a correlation between the higher an ACE score to increased risk of long-term health outcomes. For example, there was an increase in heart attack, asthma, depression, stroke, diabetes, heart disease and mental illness. Likewise, higher ACE scores equate to a shorter life expectancy. Experiencing emotional abuse as a child and witnessing substance abuse in the home were the two most commonly cited ACE scores by both men and women. Sexual abuse was reported to be more prevalent with women than men.

The implications for this research is to recognize early life experiences do matter and play a major role throughout one’s life. Children are not born innately resilient, as once believed. Healthy and supportive relationships with positive adults are what builds resilience. The window of childhood is a crucial time to not just teach knowledge but to build the emotional and psychological highway for the rest of life. As a society, if the goal is to improve the overall mental health of our culture, we must focus on early childhood experiences at the starting point.

The website has more detailed information on the ACE study.

Jenni Braaten is a social worker at Albert Lea High School.