How do bad things that happen to little girls shape their lives as adults? The science of adverse childhood experiences is growing, and the findings are sobering. And – it’s not just the negative experiences that first come to mind, such as child abuse. It’s far more than that.

We know that when some children experience a negative event when they are young, they are more prone to developmental and mental health problems. But, about 15 years ago, a small group of researchers and physicians led by Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda from University of California, San Diego, started to make startling connections between adverse childhood experiences and health in adulthood. They even coined an acronym for these experiences: ACES.

We know now that the more ACES that a person endures, the greater his or her risk for all kinds of physical health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and even cancer. ACES victims are also more apt to have unhealthy lifestyles, where they drink more, use more substances, and have a greater risk for mental health problems.

What kind of ACES?

When we think of “bad childhoods,” we tend to think of physical abuse as the most traumatic. But, ACES research is showing that other types of adversity can also affect our mental and physical health as adults. Emotional neglect, parental divorce, and having a parent with a mental health problem are also ACES culprits. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the impact that one adverse experience generates compared to another.

Does a Mother’s ACES Affect Her Children?

One thing we haven’t known up until recently is what happens when little girls who have had ACES grow up and become mothers.

Our team wanted to know if there is an “intergenerational” effect. We asked the question, “Is it possible for a mother’s experience of ACES to be transmitted to her child, so that her child is affected by her early experiences?”

So, here is the answer – hot off the press: Yes

When a woman experienced three or more adverse experiences in her childhood, her 3-year old child was more likely to have developmental problems. Her child had a greater risk for:

  • Being hyperactive
  • Being physically aggressive
  • Having anxiety or other emotional disorders
  • Experiencing separation anxiety

How Does a Mother’s ACES Affect Her Children?

Of course, finding out that a mother’s ACES had an effect on her child’s development and mental health prompted us to ask another question. Exactly how does a mother’s difficult childhood affect her children?

We found that when a mother had three or more ACES, she was more likely to have mental health problems in the year after she had her baby, and she also tended to struggle more with self doubt about her parenting skills. She simply didn’t feel confident about being a mother. ACES affected her mental health and her parenting.

The Gold Nugget

I know that this seems like a bad news article. However, understanding ourselves better and what our ACES means for our children is the place to start. For many of us who have had difficult childhoods, questions about how this affects us as women and mothers linger. We wonder whether there are carry-over effects. It’s better to know that there might be, and to do something with that knowledge, than not knowing at all.

If you are concerned, start by taking the ACES questionnaire. It takes 2-3 minutes. You can find it HERE.

Take Steps!

If you have an ACES score of 3 or more, do not despair. Remember – “risk” is not the same as “reality.” It’s a wake-up call to recognize that you have risk and to encourage you to take steps to ensure that your “risk” doesn’t turn into “reality.”

For more reading:

Monnat, S., & Chandler, R.F. (2015). Long term physical health consequences of adverse childhood experiences, Sociol Q, 56(4), p.723-752.

Lomanowska, A., Boivin, M., Hertzman, C., & Fleming, A.S. (2015). Parenting begets parenting: A neurobiological perspective on early adversity and the transmission of parenting styles across generations. Neuroscience, Epub ahead of print.

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