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How traumatic experiences affect children when they grow up

The latest Child Trends report shows children who experience "major, potentially traumatic events" are at greater risk for illness and poor health when they grow up. Nearly half of children have had at least one such adverse experience, it says.
Lois M. Collins, Deseret News Modified: August 1, 2014 at 3:36 pm •  Published: August 4, 2014

Big, potentially traumatic events create greater risk of health and behavior problems for the children who experience them, even into adulthood, according to a Child Trends report released this week.

It also found nearly half of children have had at least one such adverse experience.

Economic hardship is the most common adverse childhood experience with nearly a quarter of kids growing up in homes where parents at least sometimes struggle to provide adequate food and housing. The next most common ACE was having parents who split up.

Other ACEs in the study were living with someone who abused drugs and/or alcohol; living with someone who had mental illness or was suicidal; seeing or being victimized by neighborhood violence; being abused within the home; living with a mom or dad who had been incarcerated; or having a parent one lived with die.

"I think what's striking is how common these experiences are" said Vanessa Sacks, the study's lead author.

Children who experience those traumas may grow up to be adults with physical or mental health complaints, as other research has said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of long-term fallout from negative childhood experiences that includes substance abuse; depression; heart or liver disease; intimate-partner violence; sexually transmitted diseases; obesity; smoking; suicide attempts; and unintended pregnancies, among others.

Researchers for the Child Trends report branched out from well-documented health impact to look at whether ACEs also negatively influence behavior.

About 15 percent of older kids, 12 to 17, had experienced at least three of the adverse events: "These youths are not doing as well as their peers," Sacks said.

About half of those kids were not engaged in school and more than one-fifth repeated a grade. They were also more apt to argue or bully others, she said.

Among all the kids, including the younger ones, 10 percent had experienced at least three adverse events. About 40 percent of the parents said they'd been contacted about problems in school, and Sacks called that another "striking indicator of well-being."

Multiple negative experiences confer what appears to be cumulative damage.

Diana Kramer, a relationship coach in New York City, sees adults who grew up with a common ACE: divorce. Many of them "have problematic perceptions of relationships. There is always some implication, never a healthy one," she said.

Sacks said adults "need to be aware these experiences can be powerful and traumatic. If you already know a child has been exposed to one, prevent ongoing exposure. Also make sure the child has access to mental health care, to a close caring adult and the support they need."

State variations

The researchers used nationally representative data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children's Health that included interviews with more than 95,000 adults regarding one of their children's experiences. Because it was based on a parent's report and his or her assessment of behavior, Sacks said it's possible researchers missed some ACEs parents were not aware of. The researchers didn't try to determine whether certain experiences are more negative than others for well-being.

The just-released report also looked at geographic patterns and found trauma experienced by children varies greatly from state to state. Sacks used the example of drugs and alcohol use — experienced by more than 1 in 10 kids nationally. In Montana, the number is 1 in 5; in Georgia, it's less than 1 in 10, she said.

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