Trauma and adversity

Trauma and adversity experienced during childhood and later life can have huge impacts on people’s lives and can greatly increase their vulnerability to exploitation.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are extremely stressful and traumatic events encountered during childhood or adolescence with negative, lasting effects on health and wellbeing. They include experiences of:

  • abuse (physical, sexual or emotional)
  • neglect (physical or emotional)
  • household challenges (such as domestic violence, substance misuse, mental health difficulties, parental separation or divorce, imprisonment, parental loss).

These experiences can have significant and life-long impacts on physical, psychological and social development. They can increase the likelihood that people will participate in risk-taking and health-harming behaviours, and that they will become a victim or perpetrator of violence, abuse or exploitation.

Traumatic experiences can also occur in adulthood, exerting similar impacts on health, wellbeing and vulnerability to exploitation.

  • Further information about ACEs, trauma and vulnerability

    Research has shown that, compared to those with no ACEs, people who have experienced four or more ACES are:

    • four times more likely to have low levels of mental wellbeing and life satisfaction
    • seven times more likely to have been involved in violence
    • eleven times more likely to have used illicit drugs
    • eleven times more likely to have been imprisoned.

    (as reported in a 2014 study conducted by Mark Bellis, Karen Hughes, Nicola Leckenby, Clare Perkins and Helen Lowey, ‘National household survey of adverse childhood experiences and their relationship with resilience to health-harming behaviours in England’)

    ACEs are common within all population groups. Estimates suggest that forty-seven percent of the population in England and Wales have experienced at least one ACE, and that ten percent have experienced four or more ACEs (Bellis, Hughes, Leckenby, Perkins and Lowey, 2014).

    The physical, psychological and social impacts of trauma can be passed down through the generations, increasing the likelihood that people’s children and grandchildren will encounter similarly traumatic and adverse experiences.

    The effects of trauma are highly complex and affect everyone differently. Some people may act in an aggressive and antisocial way, whilst others may develop anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

    People may develop coping mechanisms to manage the effects of trauma. These coping mechanisms can cause further harm, for example if they involve reliance on addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol.

    ACEs and trauma can alter the physical structure and workings of the brain, particularly if they occur during childhood and adolescence. This can make people prone to impulsive, high-risk behaviour and can lead to difficulties with decision-making, communication and controlling thoughts and emotions.

    People who have experienced trauma and adversity may feel frightened, depressed, angry or ashamed. Trauma can also influence the way that people understand and talk about their experiences. It is important to be mindful of past trauma when working with others, and to recognise that it may influence their actions and behaviour, ability to talk about experiences of abuse and exploitation, and their engagement with support services.