ACEs, toxic stress and mental health

There’s a strong link between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and mental and emotional health problems. According to the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, children between 3 and 5 who have lived through traumatic events are far more likely to have trouble calming themselves down. They also are likely to have trouble staying focused or making and keeping friends.

The effects of childhood trauma can also ripple out into the future. If you were emotionally abused in childhood, for example, you have a higher risk of developing a depression-related disorder in later life. You also have a higher risk of alcoholism and alcohol abuse, substance abuse disorders, and other mental health problems.

Mental health support can play an important role in protecting children and adults from the effects of toxic stress from ACEs. Counseling and other kinds of mental health treatment can be extremely helpful for children who have faced trauma or severe hardships. If you’ve experienced trauma as a child or adult, this kind of support may also help you.

If your child has suffered Adverse Childhood Experiences such as abuse, neglect, or parental divorce or incarceration, consider seeking professional help. If someone has expressed concern about your child’s mental health or behavior, that’s also a sign your child may need professional support.

Signs your child may need professional support

  • Having difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Screaming or crying a lot
  • Having a “flat” expression that doesn’t seem to show much emotion
  • Getting anxious or extremely upset when separating from a caregiver
  • Being unusually defiant or having frequent tantrums
  • Showing the behaviors of a younger child, such as clinginess or unexpected toileting accidents


Another reason to seek help is if your child’s physical health seems to be affected. Some types of pain or illness — including frequent colds, stomach aches or headaches — may be a bodily sign of  mental distress. If your child has asthma, symptoms may get worse under stress.

Share any worries you may have with your health care providers. They can connect you with a mental health specialist who is a good fit for your family. You may be referred to a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Sharing your child’s struggles, and your own worries, is an important first step.

Mental health for parents and caregivers is really important too!

Let’s face it: Parenting is enormously gratifying, but it’s also a hard and often lonely job — and almost all of us could all use more help. You may want to check out parenting support groups in the area, or if you or your child has a mental health issues, consider joining a support group like the National Association of the Mentally Ill (NAMI).

Making some changes to your family life — if needed – can also support better emotional health. These changes may include making sure you and your children eat healthy food, get regular exercise, set up healthy sleep routines, and have caring, trusted relationships to lean on. Practicing “mindfulness” — or paying close attention to what you’re experiencing, sometimes combined with deep, slow breathing — can be helpful as well. These activities will support healthy minds and healthy bodies for parents and children alike.