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Childhood Experiences and Health

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Children are born with the potential to do great things for themselves, their family, and their community. But adverse childhood experiences or ACEs can get in the way of their potential, by impacting their relationships, sense of self, and perceptions of the world around them.  

ACEs are very stressful events or circumstances that may occur during childhood. They can have significant effects on physical health, mental health, development, and social functioning. Without support, people can continue to be impacted by ACEs throughout their lives. 

Types of adverse childhood experiences

The most common types of early adversity are listed below. 

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Emotional abuse

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Sexual abuse

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Physical abuse

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Emotional neglect

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Physical neglect

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Mental illness

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Domestic violence

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Substance use

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Incarceration of a loved one

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Parental separation


Impacts of adverse childhood experiences

There is a direct connection between the environment we grow up in and our health and well-being later in life. While a person's future isn't determined by their childhood, the connection between early adversity and poor outcomes is shown in the chart below. 

Adverse childhood experiences impact injuries, mental health, maternal health, infectious disease, chronic disease, risky behavior, and opportunities

Importance of a strong start 

Adverse childhood experiences can be passed from generation to generation as if they were genetic. Typically, the parents or caregivers of a child who experiences early adversity faced similar abuse or neglect when they were children, too. This effectively creates a cycle that can last for years.

It is important to note that social inequalities such as financial hardship, food insecurity, homelessness, and racism increase the likelihood of childhood adversities occurring. These inequalities are rooted in systems of oppression that greatly impact certain groups of people. These groups include Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Circle of adversity: adverse childhood experience, toxic stress, use of drugs and alcohol as coping mechanism, have kids, substance use in the home

Breaking the cycle of early adversity 

A stronger, connected, thriving Wisconsin can be a reality when we help children and families overcome the consequences of traumatic experiences. This gives them a pathway to avoid future trauma. Learn what people and communities can do to prevent early adversity.   

Last revised January 19, 2023