How childhood stress affects you in adulthood

Would you be horrified if I told you that some childhood stress will shorten your life expectancy by 10-20 years?

Maybe you would struggle to believe that. For generations adults have told themselves that children are resilient and get over things. But do they?

Extensive research has shown that some types of childhood stress have exactly this impact on life expectancy. This stress is referred to as toxic stress.

These types of childhood stress are called adverse childhood experiences. There is an acronym for that – ACE.


High ACE scores have been linked in research to premature death, a large number of health conditions including mental health problems, heart disease, and lung cancer.

The types of stress included in ACEs include physical and emotional abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, parents struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, sexual abuse just to name a few.

The truth is childhood trauma is not something you “get over” or “grow out of”.


The repeated stress of ACEs has well observed impacts on the way the brain develops. These impacts are observable across the person’s lifetime.

ACEs were described in the 1990s and have been the subject of much research since then. The original researchers noted that ACEs are very common, in all strata of society. A person from a middle class or high socio-economic level is just as likely to have experienced ACEs as a child from an impoverished background.


Other findings are that high ACE scores are consistent with poor adult life outcomes including significantly higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, substance abuse, mental health issues, suicide, smoking, poor academic achievement, homelessness, incarceration, being a victim of domestic violence, unemployment and early death.

That is quite horrifying. But how do stressful things that happen to children impact on adulthood? The answer is toxic stress. Toxic stress in a child is stress that leads to frequent, prolonged and excessive activation of the body’s stress response systems. This has a negative impact on the child’s developing brain, immune system, metabolic regulation and cardiovascular system. It has been described as overrevving the body over a long period of time so that it wears out and problems develop.


Children will experience stress. It is part of life. Where it becomes a problem is where there is no supportive adult or adults present to cushion the impact of the stress. For example, research has shown that during crises in the life of a family, the children of the family will be less impacted by the stress if their parents are able to cope well and support their children.


Initially ACEs were classified as:

• Neglect

• Physical abuse

• Emotional abuse

• Sexual abuse

• Domestic or family violence

• A parent with mental health issues

• A parent with substance abuse issues

• A parent in prison

• Lack of attunement between parent and child

Over time there has been a broadening of what is considered to be an ACE to include:

• Homelessness

• Natural disasters

• War

• Being a refugee

• Violence in the community

• Racism

• Chronic poverty

• And so on.


Trauma is a large part of ACEs and toxic stress. Trauma is generally considered to be any stressful experience where there is great adversity or terror and the emotional responses to those experiences. This involves toxic stress and is a major part of any ACE.


In children, trauma will often play out in behaviours where the child withdraws or acts out. Some children will develop ADHD type behaviours. Others may become aggressive and pick fights with other children. Some may withdraw and even self harm. Bullying behaviours are sometimes the result of trauma.

The child who steals cars, breaks into homes, vandalises things ifs often a child who is suffering from ACEs.

It is important to recognise the acting out behaviour of children as likely due to trauma.

Many years ago I worked in a shop and caught a boy stealing. He was only 12 and had started this destructive behaviour after his father had left his marriage. The boy was so broken and miserable. It broke my heart to see his pain.


ACE affected children grow into adulthood. It is important to consider that if you are ACE affected you are not irreparably damaged. You can get help.

It is important to see a Trauma trained therapist. Working with trauma is a highly specialised field. It is important to find out what experience a prospective therapist has in the trauma field.


Therapy to heal the impact of ACE is not a 10 session solution. The impacts on your brain have taken a long time to form and they need a long time to change. Brain growth slows over the age of 26 and you need to grow many new neural pathways. So expect these changes to take a long time.

Much of trauma is stored in the areas of the brain and body that cannot be consciously accessed. For this reason, talk only therapies are not very effective in healing trauma.

Finding a therapist who works with different approaches such as, to name a few, somatic approaches, art therapy, expressive therapies, EMDR, EFT as well as some talk therapy is important. In Australia the Blue Knot Foundation and its guidelines are the gold standard for trauma therapists. A good trauma therapist will have completed training with them.


Expect to spend a long time working on your trauma. I recommend you come to work on a problem. This may take regular sessions over a number of months. The sessions will be frequent at first and decrease in frequency as time goes on. You work on a particular aspect of your trauma, then allow time for that healing to consolidate.

You may take a break from therapy while that consolidation takes place. At some time in the future you will feel the need to seek therapy for another aspect of your trauma. You may go back to the same therapist or find a new one.


I am a trauma trained therapist, have received training through the Blue Knot Foundation and I adhere to their guidelines. I also have extensive experience working with trauma affected individuals. All the therapies listed above are used by me in my work.

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your ACEs and their impacts, please contact me on 0409396608 or

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