How Does Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect Children and Adults in Later Life

by Pauline Bergin

The areas that presented in themes were, “loss of attachment “relevant to the beginning of the infant’s journey and how the loss of attachment, can determine their experience in life. Also, the strong theme of “parenting the parent”, informing us of the responsibility that is felt by the child, when a parent is unable to parent the child.  Further important sub themes of depression, loss of relationships, resilience, and shame presented.  


In observing some of the writings around ACE, it is important to note that coping ability within ACE is different for all, to note, children who experience ACE, use both adaptive, (coping well, with in life) and maladaptive, (finding ways to cope in stressful circumstances)  strategies, in order to survive further, having a caretaker or someone who represents a sense of security or support, is also a relevant definer of the impact of ACE.


Some people who have experienced various forms of ACE, would report they have  ability   to “get on with it” as they learned from a very young age, a level of resilience, that presented a  beneficial side to ACE, for them in adult life. However, I would argue, it may also isolate them from being vulnerable as they learned to hide themselves from the world.




There exists at present, a considerably large volume of research in the area of childhood attachment, i.e., Bowlby (1969/1988) & Ainsworth (1991).  In these writings Bowlby strongly presents the theory that attachment is a “primary motivational system

            The representation of attachment provides a strong basis in infant years, childhood and beyond. It provides a trust basis towards strong relationships. 

“All of us from the cradle to the grave are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures(Bowlby, 1988, p. 62).

In the work of Ainsworth et al. (1991), shedescribes the role of secure provider as someone who offers a relationship of secure support.  Miller et al. (2009), further explores looking to early adaption by the child needing to be met.

“The child’s needs for respect, echoing, understanding, sympathy, and mirroring have had to be repressed with several serious consequences”.

            Van Parys, Bonnewyn, Hooghe, De Mol, & Rober, (2015), state the ability for the parents who presents “frightened, threatening and dissociative” behaviors, towards their own infant, which can lead the child to believe that they are “wrong” when their needs are not met – which perpetuates the child to operate in anxious attachment.  

Bowlby et al. (1969), also adheres to this point in the psychological disturbance the child feels when the parent is unable to offer unbiased attachment.:  This finding is consistent with that of Miller et al. (2009).

The art of not experiencing feelings, for a child can experience her feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts her fully, understands her and supports her” (pg.11).


Ability to connect.


Lyons & Block ,(1996), looks at the parent, through their own unresolved loss, who may be unable to connect unconditionally to the child.  In exploring childhood trauma and attachment and how this effects the adult.  “These unintegrated beliefs and affects, then contribute to the metacognitive lapses. in both reasoning and discourse processes that are the hallmarks of unresolved loss in the Adult Attachment” (pg.259).

The transference of fear in connection to the child, from mother, may set up the child to feel abandoned and neglected.


Defence Mechanisms


Another interesting aspect to ACE, is the sense the child learns to “ parent the parent”.  In Van Parys, Bonnewyn, Leuven, De Mol and Ghent, (2015) .   This is a “Bidirectional family process” they discuss “parentification” as a  means of coping with the silence of the illness.

“They also recounted that not dwelling on their own experiences was an important coping mechanism to deal with the difficult family situation(pg.534).

Further noted by Van Parys et al (2015), exploring caretaking of the parent, consistently noticed the exploration of ability to manage and maintain a relationship with parent, in order to survive.

             (Meadus & Johnson, 2001), further support this idea in their study of an adolescent child of a parent who has a mood disorder. Some specific themes are mentioned: The unavailability of the ill parent which led to feelings of responsibility and frustration for the adolescent who struggles to come to terms with the burden of having an ill parent.

Also, the sense of frustration for the child of fearing the parent, may not get better and they themselves would become ill.  This leads to understanding the mechanism of “parenting” the parent, for the child to survive. The child is carrying not only the responsibility of “parenting the parent” but also struggling to negotiate their own childhood, without the support of the parent.

 Izard, Fine, Mostow, Trentacosta, & Campbell. (2002) explore the emotional patterns that exist:

“Maladaptive emotion patterns and emotion–cognition–action sequences that contribute to internalizing processes may result from adverse, high-stress environments that include hostile family climate, insecure attachments to caregivers, conflict-laden interactions between family members, and low threshold for experience of negative emotions” (pg.782) 

Gopfert, Webster & Seeman, (2004), further support the idea of the contribution that, the child can deal with the mentally ill parent by getting involved in the family’s functioning.  This helped the child “get on with life” in a more functioning capacity and perhaps not to dwell on the parents’ illness but to be active in supporting or helping.

In exploring resistance and negativity. These can be seen as coping mechanisms, showing the parent was resistant to connection to the young child or wholly unable in their negative approach to consider the child’s feeling. Further, ambivalence was learned by the child in order to survive.  This was shown in conflicting ways to be negative and compassionate towards the parent, in order to survive, dependent in measures upon the child’s ability to cope.

The emergence of these two conflicting and unresolved emotions toward the parent indicated the beginning of a differentiation between the parent and the illness”. (Kaimal, 2010. pg.1226) 

This indicates the difficulty between connection to the parent and resistance of the illness, in order to maintain relationship. It allows us to view “the work of the child” in order to understand the resistance to the self and feelings of their own, and to be distracted into the care of the parent.

               Frederick & Goddard, (2008),discuss the experiences of relationships in early life and their impact.

A person’s fundamental notion of emotional connectedness, confidence concerning other people’s availability, and sense of self-worth can be a consequence of their early childhood experiences” (pg.199).


Adult Perspective


             I note Van Parys, Smith & Birkbeck,  (2014), contributing a reflection in retrospect of childhood.  In understanding their own patterns of behaviour, they offer the benefit of time in viewing their responses to their “parents’ behaviours and moods” and how they learned to “adjust”.

The theme, feelings of desolation, is furthermore related to an experienced lack of information. Not being informed about the parent’s illness and the uncertainty about what was going on in the family seemed to be among the heaviest burdens for the child.(pg.8).

This concurs with further research that informing the child of what is going on is an important element to their level of survival.

In looking at the fallout of ACE, in relation to the re-actions and coping methods.  Colman, Garad, Zeng, Naicker, Weeks, Patten, Jones  Thompson & Wild, C. (2012), explore coping mechanisms noting  depression and heavy drinking in adulthood:   The writer suggests that ACE contribute to depression and alcohol abuse in later life, through their findings.

In Crawford, (2013), She gives a voice to the children, who are now adults, particularly interesting, as it offers a framework for the types of traumas and their own responses. It gives depth in the research to the experiences of adults who fear intimacy in relationships and offers the ability to underpin why perhaps, adults struggle to connect in intimacy, later in life.


Finally, Miller et al. (2008), gives a window into the true feelings of children and the discussion around depression.

Depression consists of a denial of one’s own emotional reactions.  This denial beings in the service of an essential adaption during childhood and indicates a very early injury” (pg. 46).

In conclusion. I have explored, the beginnings of a human being’s life and the impact of loss of attachment.   In view of all that has been mentioned so far, one may suppose that in the unresolved loss of attachment, the human becomes defensive, and patterns emerge



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