Adolescent Development and Adverse Childhood Experiences


Roger Sherman, Idaho Children’s Trust Fund

Roger Sherman, Executive Director Idaho Children’s Trust Fund

As mentioned in my earlier blog post, adolescents experience tremendous psychological and physical growth throughout their teenage years. And now, thanks to a growing body of research, we know that stressful or traumatic events during these years can greatly impact health and well-being throughout the rest of their lives, especially if they have experienced those adversities early in life.

Professionals nationwide, led by the pioneering efforts of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have developed a framework for measuring and supporting trauma. Understanding this framework, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs) can help parents and teachers better support youth and, ultimately, improve health outcomes over the long term.

Research on ACEs has been around since the 1990s when the Centers for Disease Control published a clinical study that found “categories of ACEs were strongly interrelated and persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life” (Felitti, et al., 1998). Categories of ACEs include: psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect, violence against mother; or living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned.

The stress response associated with the categories of ACEs listed above can wreak havoc on the brain no matter an individual’s age. But because of the development and growth that occurs during adolescence, teens are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of prolonged trauma or stress especially if they have experienced ACEs as a young child. For instance, if an adolescent is in constant fight or flight mode due to psychological, physical, or sexual abuse or witnessing violence against their mother, then the adolescent’s physiological state may be altered. Often, these situations also include lack of support and proper coping mechanisms, leading children to internalize their trauma. This, too, exacerbates adverse health outcomes, resulting in an increased risk for heart attack, cancer, stroke, COPD, and diabetes.

If this is the first time you are hearing about ACEs, you are not alone. While the research has been available for over 20 years, only recently have ACEs started to receive media attention. In March 2018, 60 Minutes aired Oprah Winfrey’s segment titled “Treating Childhood Trauma.” During the segment Oprah shared, “It comes down to the question of not, “What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with that kid? Why is he behaving like that,” to, “What happened to you?” which is a very different question” (Winfrey, 2018).

This transition from asking “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” demonstrates an understanding that behavior is perhaps a symptom of experience — and that teachers and parents need to leave room to understand the root cause of behavior.

Being aware that ACEs can result in poor health related outcomes is challenging organizations to implement evidence-based interventions as well as educate parents and teachers about the concept of ACEs. While ACEs present a challenge, a better understanding of them presents a tremendous opportunity to create healthier, more resilient people.


This is part two of a three part blog series brought to you by Roger Sherman, Executive Director of the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund.

The Idaho Children’s Trust Fund, is also the state affiliate of Prevent Child Abuse America, and under Roger’s leadership, the Trust has greatly expanded its efforts to prevent child sexual abuse, introduced new ways of preventing Shaken Baby Syndrome, and engaged educators and others around trauma informed care and strengthening families.