Adverse Childhood Experiences

Publication Date:

Mar 07, 2019

Key facts about adverse childhood experiences

  • In 2016, according to parent reports, more than one in 10 children (11 percent) had three or more life experiences associated with levels of stress that can harm their health and development. Only about half (54 percent) had none of these experiences.
  • Non-Hispanic black children and youth are more likely than their non-Hispanic white and Hispanic peers to have had three or more adverse experiences (17 percent, compared to 10 and 11 percent, respectively, in 2016).
  • Poor children are more likely to have experienced three or more adverse experiences. In 2016, 13 percent of children living below the poverty level had three or more adverse experiences, compared to 5 percent of children in households with incomes more than twice the poverty level.

Trends in adverse childhood experiences

Adverse childhood experiences (sometimes referred to as ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being. These experiences range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to parental divorce or the incarceration of a parent or guardian. ACEs, especially when they cause toxic levels of stress, have been found to impair multiple aspects of health and development. These effects are especially likely when children have had exposure to multiple adversities. In fact, the more adversities an individual has experienced, the higher the likelihood that individual will have serious mental and physical health problems later in life. This indicator relies on a list of nine adverse experiences, developed for the National Survey of Children’s Health. (Appendix 2).

In 2016, 54 percent of children under 18 had been exposed to no adverse experiences, whereas 11 percent had been exposed to three or more, according to parents. Both rates have held roughly constant since 2011/12, when 53 percent of children were reported to have no adverse experiences, and 12 percent to have three or more (Appendix 1).[1]

Some experiences were much more prevalent than others. In 2016, one in four children (26 percent) had experienced frequent economic hardship, and a similar proportion (25 percent) had experienced parental divorce or separation. About one in 10 (9 percent) had lived with someone with a substance abuse problem, 8 percent had a parent serve time in jail, and 8 percent had lived with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal. About 6 percent had witnessed adult domestic violence. Relatively less common were having been a victim of or a witness to neighborhood violence (3.9 percent), having experienced racial or ethnic discrimination (3.7 percent) or having experienced the death of a parent (3.3 percent; Appendix 2).

Differences by age

Young children are at highest risk for exposure to a number of adversities (e.g., child abuse and neglect, exposure to domestic violence). However, the likelihood of having more than one such exposure increases with age, as children accumulate experiences, both good and bad. In 2016, 42 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds, according to parents, had no adverse experiences, compared to 66 percent of children under age six. Around 17 percent of the older group had three or more adverse experiences, compared to 5 percent of children under age six (Appendix 1).

Differences by race and Hispanic origin*

Non-Hispanic black children and youth are more likely than their non-Hispanic white and Hispanic peers to have had three or more adverse experiences (17 percent, compared to 10 and 11 percent, respectively, in 2016). Non-Hispanic white children and youth are the most likely to have had no adverse experiences (59 percent), followed by Hispanic children and youth (48 percent) and non-Hispanic black children and youth (36 percent; Appendix 1).

*Hispanic youth may be any race. Estimates for white and black youth do not include Hispanic youth.

Differences by poverty level*

Poor children and near-poor children are more than twice as likely than their more affluent peers to have had three or more other adverse experiences.[2] In 2016, 13 percent of children living at the poverty level or below had three or more adverse experiences, compared to 10 percent among children with family incomes from 101 to 200 percent of the poverty level, and 5 percent among children from households with incomes more than twice the poverty level. Similarly, among children at poverty level or below, 51 percent had no adverse experiences, compared to 59 percent among children with family incomes from 101 to 200 percent of the poverty level, and 73 percent among children living in higher-income households, in 2016 (Appendix 1).

*In the National Survey of Children’s Health, economic hardship is included in the list of adverse experiences.

Differences by parental education

In 2016, 9 percent of children and youth who had a parent with schooling beyond high school had three or more adverse experiences. This compares to 15 and 13 percent, respectively, among children whose parents completed high school only, and those whose parents did not finish high school. Similarly, children whose parents have education beyond high school are more likely than their peers with less-educated parents to have no adverse experiences. In 2016, among children who had a parent with schooling beyond high school, 61 percent had no adverse experiences, compared to 43 percent both among children whose parents completed high school only, and among children whose parents lacked a high school education (Appendix 1).

State and local estimates

2016 state estimates for children and youth who experienced none, one, and two or more adverse experiences are available from the National Survey of Children’s Health at http://www.childhealthdata.org/browse/survey/results?q=4783&r=1&g=606.

Data & appendices

Data source

Child Trends’ original analyses using data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, 2011-2016.

Raw data source

National Survey of Children’s Health.

http://www.childhealthdata.org

Appendices

Appendix 1. Percentage of Children, Ages Birth through 17, with No Adverse Experiences, and with Three or More Adverse Experiences: 2011/12, 2016

Appendix 2. Percentage of Children, Ages Birth to 17, with Specific Adverse Experiences: 2011/12, 2016

Background

Definition

Nine adverse experiences are included in this indicator. These were adapted from the earlier ACEs research[3] for use in a survey where parents are the reporters about their child. For each item, parents are asked to respond whether the focal child “ever” had the experience.

  1. Economic hardship (if experienced “somewhat” or “very” often)
  2. Divorce/separation of a parent
  3. Death of a parent
  4. A parent served time in jail
  5. Witness to adult domestic violence
  6. Victim of or witness to neighborhood violence
  7. Living with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal
  8. Living with someone who had an alcohol or drug problem
  9. Being treated or judged unfairly due to race/ethnicity

All references to parents refer exclusively to parents who lived with the child. Economic hardship was excluded in comparisons based on poverty level.

Endnotes

[1] The Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health (www.childhealthdata.org). cautions against making comparisons of 2016 NSCH data with data from earlier years, because the survey methodology underwent a major redesign for 2016.

[2] When comparing adverse experiences by poverty level, frequent economic hardship is excluded as an adverse experience, to compare children independent of that hardship.

[3] Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Bremmer, J. D., Walker, J. D., Whitfield, C., Perry, B. D., Dube, S. R., & Giles, W. H. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 256, 174-186.

Citation

Child Trends. (2019). Adverse experiences. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=adverse-experiences