Red Flags and ACEs:  What Happened to You?

Has anyone ever asked you, “What’s wrong with you?”  A more accurate question may be “What happened to you?” Did you have an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACES) or trauma?

Trauma is defined as a person’s response to one or multiple events that are physically or emotionally harmful or threatening. Seventy percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. It is not unusual for a person to have two, three, or four adverse events, many occurring in childhood or the teen years (birth-18 years).

The significant increase in child and teen anxiety, depression, increase in the suicide rate, and other mental health concerns over the last ten years may be related to adverse childhood experiences (ACES).  Newer, national research has documented this relationship (CDC,1921. Healthy Childhoods Start Now. (

Categories of ACEs include:

  1. childhood abuse—physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, bullying, witnessing gun violence, or terrorism.
  2. neglect—physical or emotional.
  3. family or household challenges—mental illness, parental separation or divorce, death of a parent or sibling, parental violence or substance misuse, living in poverty, major disaster.

A traumatic experience may be a single event, a series of events, or a chronic condition. The experience of trauma is highly individualized. A screening tool will be posted in a future blog to help you to review members of your family’s potential risk.

What happens to an individual early in life (ACEs) adds up over time and is likely to have health consequences in adult life. When children experience stressful events, brain development can be impacted. This altered brain development can cause unhealthy coping mechanisms. These traumatic events (toxic stress) over time can limit a person’s ability to process information, make decisions, interact with others, and regulate emotions. The higher the number of ACEs results in a higher risk for long-term negative outcomes such as depression, heart disease, liver disease, trouble at school and work, financial stress, and addiction. At least five of the ten leading causes of death in the U.S. are associated with ACEs (CDC, 2019).

Prevention begins with protective factors in a youth’s life. Put simply, they are the strengths that help to buffer and support families at risk, including those at all income levels. For this reason, it is extremely important to educate parents, teachers, and child caregivers on creating healthy and positive environments for children and teens to ensure the best outcomes in development and success. If traumatic events are unidentified and/or unaddressed, there is an increase in the likelihood of developing mental illnesses, substance use disorders and addiction, and other serious mental and physical health conditions. Preventing ACEs could reduce the number of adults with depression by as much as 44%.

What can we do?  Prevention is possible!  The church has a role! 

An increase in awareness of ACEs, more education, and dedicated support for families and children is essential, particularly for those facing risk factors. The church may be the one positive connection a child or teen has with another adult. Shifting our thinking about trauma, mental health, and parenting to be strength-based on the whole person rather than imagining all will be well as is. The church has a responsibility to identify the need and focus on resources for support, healing, and development of faith, and provide exposure to positive prevention practices in the church, home, and community. Outcomes can be impactful – for the child, the family, the church, and the community.

Suggested ReadingWhat Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, by Bruce D.Perry, MD, Ph.D. and Oprah Winfrey. You can find this book in the Caldwell Library located in the Witherspoon Building.

Quote from Dr. Perry, pages 188-89: “In the wake of trauma, the hardest thing to understand is that nothing and no one can take away the pain…. So, we make arbitrary assumptions about people’s innate resilience.  We make sweeping declarations that allow us to marginalize traumatized children.  We take our focus off the tragedy, move on with our lives, telling ourselves that “they” will be okay. But…the impact of trauma doesn’t simply fade away.”


Note:  White Memorial’s Outreach Committee selected SAFEchild as its 2023 Major Mission recipient.

Today, SAFEchild is Wake County’s leading voice for child abuse prevention, evaluation, intervention, and treatment and the only organization in Wake County that offers a full range of child abuse prevention and intervention services to children and families at no cost.

If you would like to contribute to Major Mission 2023, please contact Liz McKee, Development Director at or give online.

Find more information about SAFEchild’s Champion Our Children campaign at Learn more about SAFEchild at