Risk Factors Which Amplify Adverse Childhood Experiences

Apr 19, 2021, 10:20 AM by Dr. Hannah O'Donohoe


April is Child Abuse Prevention Month #preventchildabuse  #BeAConnection

As April is Child Abuse Awareness month, we have been discussing an important topic related to abuse and it’s effects on children. We have defined Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and discussed their proven long term affects on children and adults. Our main goal is to prevent ACEs for the children in our community and so our articles will lead up to how we can all work toward that goal. Even though you and your family may find that you are dealing with situations that are very difficult, you may be able to AVOID many factors (“risk factors”) that contribute to a negative impact on you and your children.  But of course, you can only do that if you know what to avoid.

As previously stated, not all (or any!) families or homes are perfect! Remember, over half of the adults in the original ACES study identified at least one category of adverse experiences they encountered during their childhood.  The mere presence of these experiences does not guarantee future problems.  It appears that other factors can protect children or can make the impact worse. However, based on research studies, these are avenues we can explore for prevention of abuse and neglect. Risk factors for ACEs are most often divided into two categories – risk factors for the individual/family and risk factors within the community.

Individual/Family Risk Factors that increase the negative impact of an adverse experience:

  • Families with low income and/or other economic stressors
  • Families with caregivers that have low education level
  • Families that are not connected to other family members or friends
  • Single parent families and families where the parents are very young
  • Caregivers that were abused or neglected themselves as children
  • Families that have inconsistent communication and/or inconsistent discipline, punishment, or supervision in general
  • Families that use corporal punishment and/or accept violence/aggression in general
  • Families dealing with chronically ill or disabled children
  • Children who do not feel close to or comfortable talking with their parent/caregivers
  • Teens/children who engage in risk behaviors such as sex, violence, or crimes at a young age

Unfortunately, many families are confronted with these risk factors through no fault of their own.  But many can be gently nudged by choices like making academics a priority for your children or deciding to drink water with meals instead of soda (clean tap water has economic AND nutritional benefits!)  Participation in community activities helps build strong connections.  Many of the items in the list are items parents can modify over time!

Community Risk Factors that increase the negative impact of an adverse experience:

  • High rates of crime/violence, unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity
  • Lack of activities and opportunities for children/teens and overall poor rates of community involvement among residents
  • Increased rates of social and environmental stresses
  • Easy access to drugs and alcohol in a community
  • Unstable housing that required families to move around frequently

As a parent you cannot completely control all these factors.  But you can get involved in community groups and decide to create a drug/alcohol/tobacco-free bubble around your children or to work with community agencies to build food-security.

Clearly there are many factors that need to be addressed decrease the risk of long-term impact on the health and well-being of our children!  Whether in our own homes or together as a community there are small steps we can take to decrease the impact of these risk factors on our families. 

By Hannah O'Donohoe, MD
Assistant Professor, Division of General Academic Pediatrics
Child Safety and Protection Team
University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB)

Published 4/13/2021

Violence Prevention (ACES) -, "ACEs Adverse Childhood Experience

Also see:
Week 1 ACEs Article:  "What is all this Stuff about Adverse Childhood Experiences?" on 4/1/2021

Week 2 ACEs Article:  "Toxic Stress and the Long Term Effects of ACEs on Children" on 4/7/2021
The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress - AAP PEDIATRICS

More about Child Abuse Prevention Month -  

UTMB Health Primary Care Pediatrics

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