Adverse Childhood Experiences

Studies have shown that individuals who have had an Adverse Childhood Experience are more likely to develop mental and physical illnesses in adulthood. EMCC Counsellor Sanny Chen explains.


What is ACE?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2000), Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) refer to some of the most intense and frequently occurring sources of stress that children may suffer early in life. 

These experiences include multiple types of abuse and other kinds of serious household dysfunction such as alcohol and substance abuse.

An ACE can also take the form of violence between parents or caregivers, as well as peer, community and collective violence.

It can also take the form of neglect. Many people are unaware that the absence of care for a vulnerable child can have equally long-lasting impact on the child as the presence of say, substance abuse in the household. 

These events and circumstances are potentially traumatising for a child and can cause considerable and prolonged stress before they reach the age of 18. These can have life-long consequences for a person’s health and well-being.

How to help a young person cope with the trauma of an ACE

Helping someone we love and care for when they have experienced an overwhelming or distressing event can be challenging. 

It is very important to acknowledge what has happened. The pain for that person is real and nothing you can say or do can make it disappear. However, it can gradually diminish in intensity and effect, over time and with appropriate support. 

Here are some ways to provide support:

  • Acknowledge the experience – Show empathy for his/her experience and pain. Make time to be with the person and tell them explicitly when and how you are available to them. Be aware and avoid the tendency to want to move them on before they are ready. (Many of us have the tendency to do this when listening to the traumatic experience makes us feel uncomfortable.) Genuine human contact is most of the time enough to help them feel assured and supported.


  • Provide space for autonomy – An ACE can render the person powerless or helpless, almost like they have no voice in the situation. During the healing process, give them the space to decide what is helpful by asking them what they need. By not deciding for them and allowing them to make decisions for themselves will give them a sense of control. This will help them to build self-confidence again.


  • Be prepared for backlash – He/She may seem depressed, angry, fearful or project their negative emotions on you. Expect strong feelings and emotional outbursts and try not to take it personally. Instead, recognise that they have experienced something stressful and that these reactions will subside over time.  Reassure them that their reactions are normal and help them find ways to cope better when these difficult emotions arise and cause unfavourable behaviours.


  • Affirm small changes and positive behaviours – When you have experienced them managing their emotions better, changing maladaptive behaviours for more helpful ones, or even taking care of themselves by maintaining a healthy routine of regular sleeping and eating habits, affirm and encourage them. This helps them see that you notice they are trying and will motivate them to keep moving in the correct direction.


  • Encourage relaxation and fun – These are important recovery tools to connect them to the joys and pleasures of life. Some ideas include involving the person in physical activity like walking or swimming. Exercise helps to reduce cortisol, a stress hormone, and increases “happy” ones called endorphins which lift the spirit and aids mood regulation. They also reduce muscle tension and support better sleep.

While spending time alone is helpful and likely their preference, help them to strike a healthier balance. Spending time in pairs or small groups can assimilate him/her back into social environments in a gradual and safe manner. Activities like card/board games, crafting (eg. crocheting, pottery, painting) or watching a movie together are good ideas.  

Laughter is a wonderful antidote to stress. When opportunities arise, join them to smile or laugh! 


Is it too late for adults to receive counselling and overcome the impact of an ACE after they have themselves become parents?

It is never too late for anyone to receive counselling or other professional help to overcome the impact of an ACE. It is even more crucial for caregivers or parents to take care of themselves while taking care of another dependent.

If you notice that you are experiencing some of the symptoms of trauma, start with arranging a counselling session for yourself.  If you feel comfortable, let the intake officer know clearly what your symptoms are so they can match you to the most suitable support that you need.

Book an appointment here: 

You can also arrange for a polyclinic appointment or meet with a GP so that you can be connected to a specialist (such as a psychiatrist) who can assess your situation and provide medical support if needed.

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