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Protecting our Children from “Adverse Childhood Experiences”

It’s summertime, and it seems that everywhere we turn, there are websites, blogs, and news reports talking about keeping our kids safe and healthy.  Are you using a child-safe sunscreen and insect repellent?  Are you monitoring your children well enough in the pool and teaching them to use the buddy system?  Are you enrolling your children in the camp that provide enough physical exercise to help them grow into physically healthy adults?

While all of these are important to consider, did you know that back in 1998 (and maintained since then) the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the leading cause of negative physical health in adulthood is indeed related to childhood, but it’s not chemical exposures, accidents, or even lack of exercise.  After poring over the results of a study on 17,000+ adults, the culprit was a list of ten “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (or ACEs, for short).  Children exposed to a greater number of these experiences (for example, physical abuse or neglect, emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, substance abuse in the home, or parental divorce) are at much greater risk for negative physical health outcomes including cancer, diabetes, obesity, stroke, and heart disease in adulthood.

How does this happen?  How does an event in a child’s environment “turn into” cancer or heart disease?  Researchers are working on understanding this better, but it is likely due to the physical effects of chronic stress. When emotionally stressed, stress hormones like cortisol are released into the body.  In small amounts, these hormones help you respond well to stress, but when you have too much stress over many years, these chemicals damage physical systems in the body, which is what we think leads to these poor physical health outcomes.

The good news is that not only has there been increased attention given to prevention of ACEs, we are also learning more about how to overcome the physical effects of ACEs through providing positive social and environmental experiences to children.  These positive experiences might include yoga and meditation, art and music therapies, increased physical activity, and you guessed it: collaborative interactions with adults!

So this summer, if you want to protect your children’s physical health, pick a good sunscreen and insect repellant, keep a close eye on them in the pool, make sure they get lots of exercise… and have plenty of Plan B conversations!


To watch a video of a news report in which Bob Lieberman, member of the Think:Kids Advisory Council and CEO of Kairos, discusses more about the ACEs research and the way his organization responds with Collaborative Problem Solving, click here.  For more details on the ACE study, go to

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