Is One Adverse Childhood Experience Worse Than the Others

Most people who are studying the subject of trauma are aware of the ACEs research: the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study that was first done in the late 1990s.

 This study shows the powerful impact of childhood adversity on a person’s future health outcomes. It is comprised of 10 categories of childhood adversity. Each type of adverse experience, whether it happened once or many times, earns a score of one point. Some people will have no ACEs. Others, about 67% of the population, have one or two. Some people can have four or more.

In some ways this early research was crudely created because it’s authors, Dr. Robert Anda and Dr. Vincent Felitti, had no idea they’d stumbled onto something as significant as the study of adverse childhood experiences as they would relate to health issues later in life. Nonetheless, the results were startling and have gotten the attention of trauma researchers and trauma advocates all over the world.

There is an excellent book by Donna Jackson Nakazawa, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal. The following quote is from page 25 of that book.

“The adversity a child faces doesn’t have to be severe abuse in order to create deep, biophysical changes that lead to chronic health conditions in adulthood. ‘Our findings showed that the 10 different types of adversity we examined were almost equal in their damage,’ says Felitti. After analyzing more than 18,000 responses, he and Anda found that no single Adverse Childhood Experience significantly trumped another. This was true even though some types, such as being sexually abused, are far worse in that society regards them as particularly shameful, and others, such as physical abuse, are more overt in their violence. Interestingly, recurrent humiliation by a parent caused a slightly more detrimental impact and was marginally correlated to a greater likelihood of adult illness and depression. Simply living with a parent who puts you down and humiliates you, or who is alcoholic or depressed, can leave you with a profoundly hurtful ACE footprint and alter your brain in immunology functioning for life.”

So it seems that humiliation or emotional abuse by a parent has a stronger impact than any of the other adverse childhood experiences. With the impact of that kind of abuse being slightly more detrimental to the abused person, it is also noteworthy that this type of adversity stands out among all the others.

This emphasizes the incredibly important and powerful impact of the parent-child relationship at the emotional level. It is at this level that a child experiences secure or less secure attachment and feels more or less cherished versus unimportant. It generates internal messages, creating beliefs that can last a lifetime. So, we can conclude that the emotional wounding that occurs in a child who is rejected or shamed by a parent appears to be somewhat worse than when a child experiences other forms of abuse.

Placing a value on nurturing emotionally healthy relationships between yourself and your children has statistical importance. We need to not perpetuate cycles of adversity in a family, thus exposing children to a myriad of childhood adversities. That should motivate all parents to work towards eliminating those childhood adversities that are connected with negative outcomes later in life.

Being able to provide an emotionally healthy environment can be extremely challenging for any parent or caregiver who did not experience this growing up. We are drawn to repeat the patterns of our own past in the ways that we parent. When they are unhealthy, the pull to repeat them can be extremely strong. For any parent or caregiver who knows their own childhood did not provide the experience of emotional health, secure attachment and the creation of positive inner core beliefs, it is especially important to focus on learning about healthy parenting skills along with corrected attitudes and beliefs about the nature of childhood and what children need growing up.

So what did we learn? That the childhood adversity of recurrent humiliation by a parent is the only one of the ACEs that has stronger impact than all the others.

What can we do? Have this information be a wake-up call for greater emphasis on nurturing parents and equipping them with the knowledge and skills and reliable, non-judgmental support they need to help them avoid humiliating or otherwise emotionally wounding their children. Another goal? Keeping in mind that parents who humiliate their children most likely were humiliated when they were children, we can embrace the efforts made to break the cycles of adverse childhood experiences, including and perhaps most importantly the ACE of emotional wounding by a parent.

For more information, check out my prior blogs that focus on parenting and other resources that encourage healthy parenting.

Invitation to Reflect:

  1. Were you surprised to learn that humiliation and emotional wounding of a child is slightly more detrimental to that child’s welfare and is predictive of later in life health issues than all the other ACEs?
  2. How does this information impact your understanding of the importance of healthy parenting?
  3. If you were a person who as a child lived in a home where you or other children were humiliated or emotionally wounded by a parent, how does this information resonate with you? Does it affirm the impact of that wounding on your life? Does it make you wonder how you might be different if your parent or parents were more consistently nurturing and emotionally safe?
  4. What can you do in your own life to ensure that the children you are raising do not experience the Adverse Childhood Experience of emotional wounding and humiliation?