Parents and Caregivers

What are ACEs?

Our past experiences don’t define us, but they can have a lasting impact. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful or potentially traumatic experiences that happen before the age of 18, like having a caregiver who struggles with mental health or substance use, witnessing domestic violence, or experiencing abuse or neglect.

ACEs sometimes lead to toxic stress. Toxic stress is the prolonged and intense activation of the body’s stress response that can lead to poor mental and physical health outcomes. Toxic stress is particularly harmful during childhood because a child’s brain and body are just developing.

What are the effects of ACEs?

The impact of ACEs isn’t solely determined by the number of challenging events experienced, but also by our biology and the presence of protective factors that can buffer our stress response to ACEs.

When ACEs are not buffered by a caring adult or supportive environment, or when they are prolonged, intense, or persistent, they can cause a toxic stress response. This can negatively impact our physical and mental health. As the number of ACEs you experience increases, so does the risk for serious diseases and conditions. ACEs are strongly associated with 9 out of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. and over 40 common health conditions.

The good news is we can live beyond ACEs and take steps to heal. And it’s never too late to get started.

associated with 9 out of the 10 leading causes of death
associated with over 40 common health conditions

Are my kids at risk?

ACEs happen in all communities. But structural inequities — like racism, classism, and poverty — cause ACEs to affect some communities more frequently and more significantly than others.

For example, families living in under-resourced communities are more likely to experience adversity, and are also less likely to have access to the individual and community resources necessary to prevent ACEs from leading to toxic stress.

Toxic stress can have an effect across generations, but understanding the impact of ACEs and getting support for healing sets us up to do things differently — for ourselves and for our children.

Does that mean I had ACEs too?

ACEs are more common than you think, impacting a majority of adults in California. Research in California found that:

62.3% of adults had experienced at least one ACE
had experienced four or more ACEs.

As your ACEs score increases, so does the risk for serious diseases and conditions.

ACEs can have an effect across generations, but understanding the impact of ACEs and getting support for healing sets us up to do things differently — for ourselves and the next generation. We can be the ones who help heal our families.

What can I do to help?

Safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments, like having someone to turn to, feeling cared about and heard when things are hard, and having a sense of belonging in school or the community can buffer adversities and toxic stress; reducing the risk of mental and physical health problems or difficulties with relationships in the future. You are not alone. Look for people in your community who might be able to step in as another trusted adult to support you and children in your care. This could be at school, an after-school program, or church, or through a community center or community-based organization.

All Californians can be “that someone” a young person can turn to when life gets difficult. Anyone can provide that needed support by listening, caring, and offering a safe place to process tough experiences and complex feelings.

Positive Childhood Experiences

Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) refer to seven experiences and supports that have been shown to buffer the impact of ACEs and adversities, and reduce the chance that ACEs will lead to toxic stress. These are:

  1. feeling able to talk to their family about feelings
  2. feeling their family stood by them during difficult times
  3. enjoying participation in community traditions
  4. feeling a sense of belonging in high school
  5. feeling supported by friends
  6. having at least 2 non-parent adults who took genuine interest in them
  7. feeling safe and protected by an adult in your home

Stress Busters

Taking care of our own mental and physical well-being is one of the best things we can do for our children — especially if we too experienced ACEs or toxic stress in our lives. Evidence-based strategies, or “stress busters,” like mindfulness, meditation, mental health interventions, spending time in nature, walking, and more, are scientifically proven to regulate your stress response, help manage day-to-day stress, and improve health and social outcomes.


How do I find support?

In addition to stress-busting strategies, seeking mental health support or talking to a primary care provider can also support long-term healing. Many health and mental health providers across California are beginning to screen individuals across the state for ACEs. Try talking with your family doctor, who can screen your child and connect you to resources. If you take your child to regular medical visits, your medical or healthcare provider can help you understand when their health may be at risk from ACEs.

Finding a health provider who understands ACEs

Interested in finding a provider who understands ACEs? The ACEs Aware Clinician Directory lists Medi-Cal providers who have completed Becoming ACEs Aware in California training and provides screenings.



BrightLife Kids

Get support for yourself and help your child thrive with mental health and parenting coaching. Available for parents, caregivers, and children 0–12 at BrightLife Kids.


First 5 California

If you have younger children (under the age of 5) in your care, visit First 5 California’s Stronger Start website to learn about toxic stress and strategies to support your child.



Soluna lets your teen or young adult chat one-on-one with professional coaches. This app also offers free-writing journals, de-stressing tools, and forums where they can get and give advice — or vent. Free and confidential.