How Does a Difficult Childhood Affect a Person in Adulthood?

Childhood is fairly sacred as it shapes the children of today into the adults of tomorrow. So, it is important that they are raised in a healthy and loving environment. Adverse childhood experiences can severely affect a child in an unfavourable manner. So, in other words, early-life trauma, neglect, and other adverse experiences can lead to adult-life medical, psychological, and intimacy issues. Fortunately, it can be detected early and remedied by psychologists with a simple ACES

What Is the ACES Screening?

The ACES test screens children for ten forms of childhood trauma – five personal, five familial.

Personal traumas:

  • Physical abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect

Familial traumas:

  • Addiction
  • Domestic violence
  • Incarcerated family member
  • Mental illness
  • Divorce or abandonment

This test is scored from one through ten, with each type of trauma experienced counting as one point. So individuals with an alcoholic parent and an early-life history of verbal abuse and emotional neglect would score three on the ACES screening.

Research consistently links ACES to adult-life physical, emotional, and relational issues. The higher a person’s ACES score is, the more likely that person is to experience physical ailments like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Similarly, the higher a person’s ACES score is, the more likely he or she is to experience psychological and behavioral issues like anxiety, depression, and addiction.

Research is very consistent with these results. For example, one wide-ranging study found that individuals with an ACES score of four or higher are: Likely to smoke cigarettes, become obese, experience anxiety, be prone to panic reactions, suffer from depression, be promiscuous, have early-life sexual intercourse, resort to alcoholism or intravenous drugs

The amount of research producing similar results is almost overwhelming. So there’s an undeniable link between early-life trauma and numerous adult-life physical and psychological disorders.

At Seeking Integrity Treatment Centers, where I am Chief Clinical Officer, we test every client for early-life trauma, and even the individuals who initially insist that they had an idyllic childhood tend to score three or higher. We treat sex and intimacy disorders, which tend to be shame and trauma driven, so this is hardly a surprise. What readers may find surprising is that almost two-thirds of all people score at least one point on the ACES screening.

The basic ACES Screening test is a mere ten questions, and it’s limited to five personal and five familial categories. The instrument does not examine bullying, racism, financial struggles, severe illness or accident, and a thousand other possible forms of trauma.

Additionally, there is a lack of explanation about what may qualify in a particular category. For instance, an overly enmeshed, covertly sexualized relationship with a parent is, from a psychological standpoint, a form of both sexual abuse and emotional abuse/neglect (adversely affecting the child’s emotional and relational development). But most people, especially those new to the process of healing, will not readily identify it as such.

Trauma Treatment

When early-life trauma is uncovered via assessment or during the course of another treatment, and when that trauma appears to be linked to the patient’s adult-life issues (physical, emotional, relational), it will need to be acknowledged and addressed, preferably with the assistance of a clinician who specializes in trauma work as part of his or her practice.

At times, it is wise to address the patient’s presenting issue before delving too deeply into his or her underlying trauma. When dealing with an addiction, for example, it is best to break through the addict’s denial, to define what sobriety looks like, and to develop coping skills the addict can turn to when triggered (by stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, depression, and other forms of emotional discomfort) toward the addiction.

Otherwise, the emotionally painful work of trauma therapy could easily trigger an addiction relapse. That said, once sobriety is established and the addict has a solid support network in place, the deeply emotional work of understanding and resolving trauma should absolutely take place. If not, the individual will continue to struggle with the feelings that drove the addiction in the first place. And a similar statement could be made about any adult-life issue – physical, psychological, relational – that is impacted by unresolved childhood trauma.

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