No matter our differences, there is one thing that most parents and guardians can agree on: the well being of their children is the number one priority. It’s this priority that guides us to bandage their scraped knees when they fall off a bike or make them soup when they are running a fever. But what about a child’s emotional and mental wellbeing?

The fact is that a child’s emotional and mental health are incredibly important to their development. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can ultimately shape how a child grows into an adult.

What are ACEs and how do they affect people?

An Adverse Childhood Experience is the psychological term for any traumatic event that a child  may experience from ages 0 to 17. Examples of common ACEs include:

  • Experiencing and/or seeing violence and abuse
  • Having a family member attempt or die by suicide
  • Growing up in a household with substance abuse, mental health problems or instability that undermines a child’s sense of safety
  • Systematic racism and adversity
  • Persistent poverty
  • Emotional or physical neglect

A child’s brain absorbs information like a sponge, because it is still developing. Traumatic situations can send our bodies into overdrive by producing stress hormones that can disrupt the chemistry of our brains. When those stress hormones stick around for too long, it becomes toxic stress and can wreak havoc on our bodies. In fully formed adult brains, this can cause things like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For a child’s developing brain, toxic stress can stunt healthy brain development and affect things like attention, decision-making, learning and stress response.

Children who experience ACEs have a higher likelihood of developing chronic health problems, mental illness and substance misuse in adulthood. An estimated 1.9 million cases of heart disease and 21 million cases of depression might have been avoided by preventing ACEs.

How should we consider ACEs in custody cases?

When considering custody cases, courts are tasked with figuring out what is in the best interest of the child. This includes the long-term wellbeing of a child. With all the research and knowledge done on ACEs, part of that process should include evaluating the course of action that can best prevent or limit future ACEs.

Adverse Childhood Experiences are not new. But the research being done on ACEs and the effect they have on children’s development is giving us a new language to describe a child’s best interest. After all, the priority of any parent or guardian is raising a healthy, happy, child.