Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): What are they and how can they be prevented?

Learn more about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), how they can affect children and how we can prevent them.

Bearded Man Carrying his Son
Photo: Helena Lopes,

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs are potentially traumatic events that happen during childhood. Examples of ACEs include living through or being exposed to abuse or neglect, familial violence, mental illness, parental separation, divorce, or substance use. There are also other types of adversity that children may experience, like bullying, community violence, discrimination, and natural disasters. ACEs can disrupt a child’s development and can impact social, emotional, and cognitive impairment. The CDC shares that disruptions like ACEs can lead to poor health outcomes and can negatively impact life expectancy.

From 1995-1997 the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study , one of the largest studies of its kind, was conducted and over 17,000 adults shared information about their childhood experiences and completed a physical health examination. This information was used to form the list of ten commonly experienced ACEs and examined how those experiences impact health outcomes. The ten common ACEs identified from this study include experiencing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, parental mental illness, a household member with a substance use disorder, incarceration of a relative, witnessing abuse, and losing a parent.

What are the effects of ACEs?

ACEs have been shown to have lasting negative effects on physical health, including contributing to obesity, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease, cancer, stroke, behaviors (alcohol use, drug use, and smoking tobacco) and life potential (e.g., high school graduation rates, academic achievement, lost time from paid work). The foundational ACEs study showed that individuals with six or more ACEs died nearly 20 years earlier on average than individuals without ACEs.

Are ACEs the same for everyone?

ACEs are common and impact people from all walks of life. In fact, about two-thirds of the ACEs study participants reported experiencing at least one ACE and more than 20 percent reported three or more ACEs.

Can ACEs be prevented?

ACEs can be prevented. Prevention of ACEs can positively impact lifelong outcomes for children and their families. Safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments can positively impact children who experience ACEs and help mitigate the negative and harmful impact of those experiences.

The CDC has identified evidence-based, prevention strategies for communities to prioritize including:  

  • Strengthen economic supports to families
  • Promote social norms that protect against violence and adversity
  • Ensure a strong start for children
  • Teach skills
  • Connect youth to caring adults and activities
  • Intervene to lessen immediate and long-term harms

While ACEs are prevalent, we can all play a role in helping to prevent or lessen the impacts of ACEs through community efforts and programs to support children and families. To learn more about each of the prevention strategies, please visit Adverse Childhood Experiences Prevention Resource for Action.

Michigan State University Extension offers educational programming on an array of health and social-emotional wellbeing topics such as ACEs, Stress Less with Mindfulness, Mental Health First Aid, Chronic Disease PATH (Personal Action Towards Health) and Sleep Education for Everyone (SLEEP). For more information on upcoming programs, please visit

If you or someone you know needs immediate mental health support, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat

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