Links between adverse childhood experiences and dysfunctional behavior, explained

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In the modern era, news is an indispensable resource to keep informed about what’s happening in the world. It reports up-and-coming local events, advice columns and how one’s favorite football team performed in the game last night – though not all articles are jovial.

News of brutality, riots or bigotry can brew despondency overnight. Despite the countless policies between political factions that each claim to bring about improvement, one conviction is shared: there is a great sickness in the cities, the country and even the world.

Violence seems to exist as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. To discover the root of such wickedness, one solution I propose would be to first examine the link between the household, childhood trauma and dysfunctional behavior.

This article is the first in a series that will analyze the physical, biological effects of trauma on a child’s brain, investigate its in-depth psychological consequences and proposed parenting techniques that may help lead us to a harmonious, nonviolent society.

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is one of the largest examinations of childhood abuse and neglect and the relationship of later-life health. The test – a 10 question, self-administered quiz – asks of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, intimate partner violence, violence shown toward mothers, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce and an incarcerated household member.

According to data collected from over 17,000 middle-age participants, ACEs –  though well concealed –are unduly common. Exposure to such dysfunction has a profound negative effect on health and is a prime determinant of well-being in adulthood.

The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences is almost certainly underrepresented given that the participants were largely middle class with excellent health insurance and did not accurately represent the size of the lower and upper classes. It does not, for the most part, include impoverished citizens who according to this study, would be vastly overrepresented in terms of ACEs.

Because child abuse can sporadically block the memory of traumatic events and that the study relied on self-reporting, it’s probable that some participants unintentionally or otherwise minimized their actual number of adverse childhood experiences. Provided, one can safely assume the gathered data would, in reality, be much greater.

The minority of people has never had an adverse childhood experience while most people have experienced one or more. Thirty-five percent of men and women in the middle-class population have reported zero adverse childhood experiences, 25 percent have reported one, 13 percent have reported two, six percent have reported three and 10 percent reported four or more.

Studies of U.K. childhood sexual assault showed that two-thirds of girls and one-third of boys have been sexually abused. Furthermore, another U.K. study discovered that two-thirds of British mothers said they routinely hit their infants in their first year of life.

Even more shocking, 97 percent of mothers report in the next two years of their child’s life, they routinely hit their children “at least once a week… most a good deal more often” using straps, belts, canes and sticks.

ACE Study participants reported that 79 percent of their childhood abusers were their parents. In the past two decades, over a hundred studies have shown that violence is the result of insecure or disorganized early attachments.

According to Dr. Alison Gopnik, a psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley, traumatized individuals attempt to self-medicate by abusing drugs, alcohol, smoking and casual sex.

Compared to those with zero adverse childhood experiences, people who have six or greater adverse childhood experiences are more than three times more likely to be habitual smokers.

Individuals with a high number of ACEs were far more likely to report drug and alcohol abuse. Contrasted to people with zero, people with five or more were seven to ten-fold more likely to report illicit drug addiction as well as parental drug abuse. Adverse childhood experiences are strongly correlated with alcohol consumption during mid-adolescence, defined as the time in which individuals are 15 to 17 years of age, accounting for 20 to 70 percent increased likelihood. Compared to individuals with no ACEs, those with four or more were nearly six times more likely to become alcoholics.

Adverse childhood experiences have a graded association with chronic depression. It was reported that 15 percent of people with zero ACEs have chronic depression, 22 percent of people with one, and 30 percent of people with two, 36 percent with three and 47 percent of people with four or more. A study comparing both sexes revealed that women were on average 12 percent more likely than men to be chronically depressed.

Fifty years after the trauma occurred, participants report widespread use of antidepressants. Fifty percent of people with one ACE reveal frequent use of prescription antidepressants; those with two, 65 percent; people with three, 73 percent, individuals with four, 97 percent; and 99.5 percent of study participants with five or more ACEs. A 2016 study found that psychotropic medications often incite violent tendencies in those who use them. Researchers Eikelenboom-Schieveld et al. concluded:

As forensic medical and toxicology professionals become aware of the biological causes of these catastrophic side effects, they may bring justice to both perpetrators and to victims of [antidepressant-caused] violence.

“The medicalization of common human distress has resulted in a very large population getting medication that may do more harm than good by causing suicides, homicides and the mental states that lead up to them,” concluded researchers Eikelenboom-Schieveld et al.

In addition to chronic depression, there is a strong correlation between ACEs and the risk of attempted suicide. Over the general population, nearly four percent have attempted suicide; however, adverse childhood experiences in any category increased the risk of attempted suicide two to five fold. Even more shocking, compared with persons with no ACEs (who have a rate of one percent), those with seven or more experiences are 32 times more likely to make an attempt on their life.

Because of brain damage that occurs because of child abuse, early childhood trauma has a profound relationship to memory. Nine percent of individuals claiming no ACEs experienced significant memory loss of their childhood; however, the figure more than doubles for those who’ve two ACEs. Thirty-six percent of individuals with four or more ACEs report remarkable amnesia of their childhood.

Generally speaking, most would already associate childhood trauma, neglect or abuse with dysfunctional behavior in later life. When one examines the data, the relationship is remarkably blatant.

Photo courtesy of americanspcc.org.

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