Adverse Early Childhood Experiences

Adverse Early Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are associated with family problems and the transfer of mental health concerns from one generation to another. These include elevated levels of psychological stress among family members, both children and adults, and mental health concerns in the family such as substance abuse problems, and their transition from one generation to another.

Family Problems

The Intergenerational Cycle of Mental Health Concerns

Genetics alone, or what we view as an inherited predisposition for specific mental health concerns, does not fully account for the transition of mental health problems from one generation to another. Epigenetic research demonstrates that adverse early childhood experiences are associated with mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression and addiction. ACEs also play a role in how our our genetic potential is expressed, or conversely, suppressed or turned off.  Our  psycho-social experiences, either adverse or positive, modify our genes, and hence the genetic predispositions we pass onto subsequent generations.

Gene Mate, an expert on addiction, and how it arises, asserts that there is no nature versus nurture argument as it applies to addiction. In making this assertion he relies on the study of epigenetics. Our understanding of epigenetics also helps explain the roots of other mental health concerns, and their inter-generational transmission from one generation to another.

Epigenetics addresses how our genes interact with our social environments, in multiple and complex ways to shape how our genetic predispositions are expressed. It focuses on the role that our early social experiences play in determining which genes are expressed or turned on, and/or  conversly suppressed or turned off. This process also helps shape the genetic tendencies that we pass on to our offspring, and that they in turn will pass on to others.  

The nature of our early social environments, including the perinatal and post natal periods, determine our risks for developing a psychological disorder or concern, along with any genetic predispositions we possess. Favorable psychological environments can reduce or turn off the genetic risks we face for developing a mental health problem. The opposite is the case for those who endure less favorable childhood conditions. 

What Are Adverse Early Childhood Experiences?

Dr. O'Connor's focus on family problems centers on this inter-generational cycle of mental health concerns, and the role that Adverse Early Childhood Experiences (ACEs) play in the development of mental health concerns.  Family problems frequently lie at the root of a range of psychological disorders, and mental health concerns. Conversely, favorable family conditions play a protective role and aid in the prevention of mental health concerns.

What are Adverse Early Childhood Experiences and how do they increase the risks for mental health concerns in young people and the adults they become?

Adverse Early Childhood Experiences are potentially traumatic events that can occur in childhood. These include psycho-social concerns that can undermine the child's sense of safety, stability and bonding such as growing up in a home with substance abuse problems, mental health problems, and instability. Or abuse or neglect, or witnessing violence in the home or community.

Adverse Early Childhood Experiences contribute to toxic stress (chronic, ongoing negative stressors) that can result in changes to the child's physiological baseline state, and contribute to symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Adverse Early Childhood Experiences are also associated with what we have come to describe as complex or developmental trauma.

High levels of toxic stress can have detrimental effects on the developing brain, which places children who experience such stressors at risk for numerous psychological concerns. These  include social, emotional and behavioral problems, as well as cognitive, learning and academic difficulties. These children are also at risk of developing problems with attention, as well as emotional and behavioral regulation. The more ACE's the child experiences the greater their risk for developing serious psychological concerns. Without help the problems they show as children will remain with them as adults, and move forward to infect future generations of children.

To learn about  the Inter-generational cycle of depression, click here.

Promoting Positive Outcomes

Dr. O'Connor's psychological  testing  services help explore the psychological affects of family  problems in  a young person. They also lead to interventions to help address these concerns, and help build psychological resilience in the young person.


Dr. O'Connor is the author of - "I Can Be Me-A Helping Book for Children from Troubled Families.

This book has been updated to reflect the recent literature on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and includes a special focus on children of addicted parents. It also supports young people who are experiencing other adverse experiences, and serves as catalyst to promote healthy ongoing change in a child's life.

There is an adult guide to assist therapists, parents and other adults in addressing this issue with children, and a children's work book.

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