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Better than a time machine

flower-1445014-mYour life experiences have made you who you are. They shaped you into the person you are today.

For some of us, this may not be a bad thing. Despite life’s challenges, we have overcome. And we are now free to share and inspire and support others on their journeys to hopefully do the same.

For others, if there was an option to go back in time and make a different choice at a critical point in time, we would gladly do so – no matter how much change would occur after that choice, because any change to our lives would be better than where we’re at now.

Of course we don’t have a time machine. We can’t go back in time and make different choices. We have to live with what our lives have become, for better or for worse.

And for many of us, what set the stage of our life’s challenges date back clear into childhood. It wouldn’t have made any difference what choices we had made. The choices that mattered, that determined our life course, were those of our parents.

And according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University and published in the December 2014 edition of the journal Health Affairs, the choices of parents are affecting nearly half of all children’s lives — and not in a good way.

The study found, from analyzing data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health, that 48 percent of all children in the United States have experienced an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), basically a fancy name for childhood trauma.

My colleague, Jane Stevens of ACEs Too High, can more fully explain the science behind the ACE. While not every hurt qualifies as an event severe enough to detour a child’s emotional development, what does qualify as an ACE is scientifically shown to be traumatic enough to a child to cause lasting effect, including:

  • Living in extreme poverty
  • Experienced parental separation or divorce
  • Lived with someone with alcoholism or substance abuse
  • Witnessed or a victim of neighborhood violence
  • Lived with someone who is mentally ill or suicidal
  • Witnessed domestic violence
  • Had a parent who served time in jail
  • Been a victim of racial or ethnic discrimination
  • Experienced the death of a parent.

So, to review, 48 percent of all U.S. children – nearly every 1 in 2 children – have experienced one of these childhood traumas. In addition, 23 percent of U.S. children have experienced two or more of these traumatic events.

Those are startling statistics.

Even more so, that list of childhood events that qualify as a traumatizing ACE don’t even seem that bad in some cases. Probably anyone reading this knows someone who has experienced separation or divorce, for example. It’s so common that it now seems deceivingly benign. But an ACE is nothing to underestimate.

Besides being emotionally traumatizing in the short-term, research reveals that ACEs predispose children to eventually develop chronic disease as adults, such as cancer, heart disease and mental illness, as well as being a perpetrator or victim of violence. The more ACEs a person has, the greater his or her risk.

On an individual level, these outcomes of ACEs are devastating. On a societal level, ACEs are responsible for a great chunk of workplace absenteeism and for much of the costs in health care, mental health case and criminal justice.

And ACEs are unlikely to occur alone – having one ACE means you’re more likely to have two or more. So the children involved in the Johns Hopkins study who were found to have just one ACE are not in the free and clear: Follow-up studies are likely to find that these children acquired additional ACEs with age.

At this point, I want to make something clear: I believe that the vast majority of parents are doing the very best they can with the resources and support that are available to them.

And at any one time, numerous parent support organizations are working to expand their services to be able to offer and provide more and better, free or low-cost support to mothers and fathers who are actively striving to improve their parenting skills and family relationships.

We are not able to jump in a time machine, turn the clock back and undo a choice that we made at a critical point in our child’s life, but we can resolve to start right now — in this moment — to move toward making better choices in the future. And there are organizations, like Attachment Parenting International, available to help you do this.

And for those of you who are not parents, it is a sound investment to donate — little or small — to parent support organizations, for a better future not only for today’s children but for tomorrow’s society.

Better than a time machine

Rita Brhel

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APA Reference
Brhel, R. (2015). Better than a time machine. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 9 Feb 2015
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