Adverse Childhood Experiences & Disasters


Have you ever heard of Adverse Childhood Experiences, otherwise known as ACEs?  ACEs were first highlighted in 1995 in a groundbreaking research study  conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente.  This study showed that children under the age of 18 who have been exposed to traumatic or stressful events such as domestic violence, parental divorce, a parent with a mental health condition, physical or sexual abuse, or growing up in a household with drug or alcohol problems, have a significantly increased risk as an adult for chronic health conditions (cancer, diabetes, heart disease), mental health issues (depression, anxiety, PTSD), risky behavior (early pregnancies, HIV, STDs, alcohol or drug abuse), or an early death.  According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, approximately 68% of children 0–17 years old have experienced one or more ACEs.  As the number of ACEs a child experiences increase, so does the likelihood of these health and behavioral outcomes.

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The science behind ACEs shows that a child’s health is compromised due to the physiological response the body has to the stressors the child may have experienced.  When your body is stressed it releases adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemical messengers that can negatively change the structural development of your body and brain functions.  Your body also remains at a heightened response state during those traumatic ebbs and flows which further compromises the immune system.  These various physiological changes in the body are the reasons for the increased health and behavioral risks later in life.

So how do ACEs relate to the work of Child Life Disaster Relief?

Whether they are natural or man-made, disasters have the capability of being extremely stressful and traumatic situations for anyone involved.  The child’s “typical” world and routine have been transformed, they may no longer have a home or any comfort items that were in that home, their school may be destroyed, or they may have lost a family member, a friend, or a pet.  Everything that was “normal” before, may no longer be normal, and that can be detrimentally stress-inducing.  Due to the unknown and sometimes unpredictable nature of disasters, they may be experiencing that prolonged state of heightened sensitivity or anxiousness while they wonder, “Will there be another shooter?  Will the shooter find us at our next school?  Will another hurricane come?  Will the hurricane take our next house away too?”  All of this may cause worry and unfortunate continuous exposure to the body’s stress response, therefore contributing to ACEs and its’ long-term effects down the road.

Child Life Disaster Relief (CLDR) and Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLSs) play a very large role in helping to mitigate and decrease the negative outcomes from the ACEs that have been caused by disasters.  Providing a safe, stable and nurturing environment for these children is the most important role of CCLSs immediately following a disaster, so the children can begin to come down from that heightened state caused by the disaster.  Once a safe space has been established and felt by the children, the children’s stress response system has an opportunity to decompress which then allows for time to begin processing what has happened in developmentally appropriate ways – most often through PLAY!  Child life specialists have the skills and expertise to assist in providing creative outlets through open-ended, expressive and therapeutic play experiences to help foster the processing that helps to prevent adversity and promote healing.

Just because a child is exposed to ACEs doesn’t necessarily mean they will experience poor outcomes; having a support network, such as child life specialists, and other protective factors, such as positive coping skills and resources, helps to minimize these chances.  The role that child life specialists play in mitigating the affect of ACEs on children during disasters is essential in helping children heal and has been witnessed time and time again.  For countless examples, check out our blog.

If you haven’t already done so, we hope you join us in this journey working with children post-disaster; and thank you to everyone who has already showed such gracious and continued support.

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