• Adverse childhood experiences are classified as a form of childhood trauma that can increase our chances of significant mental and physical health problems later in life.  
  • Adverse childhood experiences may take the form of parents divorcing, family violence, verbal or physical abuse, a family member’s terminal illness, sibling bullying, parents picking favorites, and witnessing substance abuse/alcoholism.
  • Some of the long-term effects of childhood trauma caused by adverse childhood experiences include an increased risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, PTSD, forms of cancer, high blood pressure, and more.
  • The best way to acknowledge, accept, and find healing from the emotional pain of adverse childhood experiences is to talk with a therapist or other mental health professional about your memories.
  • Even those who weren’t aware they suffered from childhood trauma may be able to improve their current quality of life by processing past family dynamics.   

Childhood, if nothing else, is a memorable period of our lives. Hopefully, we can recall blissful memories: of holidays, old friends, family vacations, and time spent simply running around, doing all the things kids do. But not every childhood experience is so positive—some of us have adverse childhood experiences. In adulthood, that can mean confronting some truly dark recollections of our formative years. 

Adverse childhood experiences certainly leave their mark, but we may not always be aware of the full weight or effect of these painful, possibly suppressed memories. At least, until we’re well into adulthood. During adulthood, we’re sometimes faced with the emotional or physical scars of childhood trauma—and recognizing and accepting that pain can sometimes be the best way to experience true healing. 

What Counts as Childhood Trauma or an Adverse Childhood Experience? 

Some adverse childhood experiences aren’t necessarily viewed as traumatic or impactful until that child becomes an adult seeking help for an unrelated issue. It’s not uncommon that, with the help of a therapist, an adult realizes and can process the true pain that they coped with at a young age. Every individual may have suffered from unique circumstances or situations, but some of the experiences generally considered to be adverse childhood experiences include: 

  • Witnessing parents’ divorce or separation 
  • Observing family violence or being the target of physical or emotional abuse
  • Losing a parent or family member to a terminal illness 
  • Becoming a victim of sibling bullying 
  • Witnessing parents pick favorites among siblings
  • Witnessing substance abuse or a parent suffer from alcoholism
  • Experiencing a parent’s incarceration
  • Coping with a parent who suffers from a mental health condition

There are many other adverse childhood experiences that may cause significant psychological stress and trauma, even if the results of those experiences aren’t readily apparent at the time of occurrence. Those of the LGBTQIA+ community, women, and people of color are more likely than others to have experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences. But what are the long-term effects of that childhood trauma? 

How Do Adverse Childhood Experiences and Childhood Trauma Affect Us Later in Life?

As we mature, it may become evident that one or more adverse childhood experiences have contributed to other issues that present themselves in our adult life and personal relationships. That childhood trauma, whether we’ve always acknowledged it or not, may still be present. The effects of adverse childhood experiences put sufferers at much higher risk of developing: 

  • Heart disease
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Chronic stress and anxiety
  • PTSD
  • Cancer
  • High blood pressure
  • A form of substance abuse

The long-term physical and mental health damage of adverse childhood experiences is so extensive, that the CDC estimates that the US could save $56 billion dollars per year in doctor’s expenses, mental health services, other forms of treatment, lost wages, and more— all by simply reducing the number of annual adverse childhood experiences by 10%. 

What to Do If You’ve Experienced an Adverse Childhood Event or Childhood Trauma

As previously mentioned, you may not know that you’ve experienced any childhood trauma or adverse childhood experiences if you haven’t talked about any of the uncomfortable or painful memories you may recall from childhood. With help from a therapist or counselor, it isn’t uncommon to discover the unconscious ways that childhood trauma may detrimentally affect your romantic relationships—and potentially all personal connections. There’s never a wrong time to talk with a mental health professional. 

But it could be more beneficial for your quality of life to connect with a therapist, especially if it seems as though one or more experiences cause you to be: 

  • Plagued by low self-esteem
  • Unable or unwilling to form close personal relationships (platonic or otherwise) as an adult
  • Constantly juggling your personal ambitions with exhausting attempts to please others
  • Experiencing nightmares related to one or more potentially adverse childhood experiences
  • Using socially destructive coping methods to fend off your own emotional pain, including isolating yourself socially or lashing out verbally or physically at others when overwhelmed 
  • Suffering from alcoholism and other types of substance abuse

No family has been, or ever will be, perfect; not all adverse childhood experiences are caused on purpose. But childhood trauma is still trauma. So if it seems as though you’re struggling to understand your childhood or family dynamics, you aren’t alone. A trained, licensed, and skilled mental health professional can help guide you toward acknowledgment and acceptance of one or more adverse childhood experiences and guide you along the path toward emotional well-being.