ACEs In The Church

What are they and why should the church care?

ACEs are Adverse Childhood Experiences and you can’t get away from them. Dr. Robert Block, the former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “ACEs are the single greatest, unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”

ACEs are negative experiences in childhood that impact the developing brain in children and leads to changing how they respond to stress. It also impacts their immune system so profoundly that the effects play out long into adulthood. ACEs are the root cause for many chronic diseases, most mental illness and most violence.

The groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, as well as financial and social problems was a collaboration between the CDC and Kaiser Permanente.

The ACE Study has published around 70 research papers since the late 1990’s. Hundreds of additional research papers based on the ACE Study have also been published.

So what are considered to be Adverse Childhood Experiences? In the original study, there were 10 adverse experiences measured. They are physical, sexual and/or verbal abuse; physical and/or emotional neglect; a family member who struggles with mental illness, addicted to alcohol or another substance or a family member in prison; witnessing a parent being abused; losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason. Additional studies have included bullying, racism, involvement with the foster care system and living in an unsafe neighborhood.

These types of stress on children are called toxic stress and they have a huge impact on developing brains and bodies. They are the biggest predictor of future violence and becoming a victim of violence, adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness.

How common are ACEs? Adverse Childhood Experiences are very common, in fact 64% of adults have at least 1 ACE. If you have one ACE, there’s an 87% chance that you have two or more. Facts about the study: There were 17,000 participants in the original study; mostly white, middle and upper-middle class college-educated people with good jobs and great health care. 34 states and the District of Columbia have replicated the study across different socio-economic lines and all the results remain similar.

It appears the number is increasing.

1 in 2 children have experienced at least 1 ACE by the time they reach 17 years of age.

1 in 3 have experienced 2 or more.

The church is not exempt. Yet, many churches are not trauma informed and risk “re-traumatizing” people.

What does all this mean?

It means we have to break the silence on hidden abuse and neglect in the church. We have to stop asking “what’s wrong with you” and start asking “what happened to you?”

In order for the church to be a light in the darkness, we have to lead the way with integrity. If we want to break the cycle, we have to get to the root and stop polishing fake fruit.

Let’s look at the reality:

  1. Bullying happens in the church. Especially in youth groups and children’s ministries.
  2. Racism happens in the church.
  3. People in our churches live in unsafe neighborhoods.
  4. People in our churches struggle with alcohol and children have parents that struggle.
  5. Children in our churches have parents that struggle with mental illness.
  6. There are children in our churches that come from foster homes and children in our churches that get removed and placed into foster homes.
  7. There are children in our churches that have witnessed a parent being physically abused.
  8. There are children in our churches that have and ARE being abused and/or neglected.
  9. There are adults sitting in our churches that have an ACE score. More than 1 in 2 adults.
  10.  No one is exempt, from the church staff and their families to the first time visitor walking through the door.
  11. ACEs do not go away because we may choose to ignore them.
  12.  The Bible does not endorse behaviors that cause ACEs.

What can we do?

Educate yourself.

Educate your ministry teams.

Realize: the widespread impact of trauma and understand the different paths of recovery and resilience.

Recognize: the signs and symptoms of trauma in adults, children, families, volunteers and staff.

Respond: by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies and procedures.

Resist: re-traumatizing.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has laid out 6 key principles of a trauma-informed approach.

  1. Safety: not just physical safety, but emotional safety. Can vulnerable people share without judgement?
  2. Trustworthiness & Transparency: Is authenticity valued within your church?
  3. Peer support: Is your church a place where real friendships can develop or is it merely superficial?
  4. Collaboration and mutuality: Does your church view ministry to traumatized and vulnerable people an integral part of it’s work or just a niche ministry?
  5. Empowerment, voice and choice: Are traumatized and vulnerable people met with understanding and given a voice realizing that they bring wisdom and value to ministry?
  6. Cultural, historical and gender issues: Does your church understand the unique cultural issues and gender issues that trauma is usually bound up in? Do they understand the generational effect?