COVID-19 and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are on the rise

I recently saw a post on social media where someone was dancing outside and making comments about how wonderful this quarantine and pandemic has been for her and she did not understand why people were complaining, depressed, or worried. She has had five months without work yet fully paid, without small children, without health concerns, life as usual without fear.

Now, I definitely applaud the effort to see the beautiful things and small victories in such a difficult time but this person’s reality teetered on fantasy. Definitely privilege. Because as most of us know, the pandemic has been wrought with hardship to varying degrees. For some, it has meant life or death. To many children, it could mean living for a lifetime with the consequences of childhood trauma also known as ACEs.


Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs) is a term that came out of a Kaiser Permanente study in the 1990s. ACEs are potentially traumatizing events that happen to a child before the age of 18. They include physical, verbal, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; living with a family member that has mental illness, addiction, or incarceration; witnessing a mother-figure being abused; or losing a parent to separation, divorce, or death.

Consider now a family that has been in lock down together for five months. Social isolation often means disconnection from support systems. Perhaps one or more adult lost a job. Perhaps they cannot afford to pay rent or purchase groceries. In the last month, more than 30 million people filed for unemployment benefits. That’s 29 million more than one year ago at this time. Add to that any physical or mental disability, socioeconomic or cultural factors, addiction, etc., and you can see why so many families are struggling during this time.


The New York Times reported that rates of domestic violence, or “intimate terrorism,” between adults are skyrocketing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Children in these homes are often the innocent observers of this violence, if not also the active recipients. The US Department of Health and Human Services found that 1 in 4 children will be victims of abuse on any “average” day. During times of crisis, these rates increase.

More than 80% of abused children were victimized by their own parents. Parents that they are now with almost all day, every day. Most abused and neglected children found their escape, emotional support, and nutrition at school and related activities. School teachers trained in trauma-informed care know how to watch for signs of abuse and neglect. They are on the front lines–daily protecting children and calling out suspicious and abusive behavior. In fact, calls reporting child abuse have dropped drastically since the start of the pandemic. This does not mean that the abuse is not happening–but that it is not being reported. The abuse is happening behind closed doors and the children being victimized are truly all alone.


The first thing that we must do is remain mindful of ACEs and childhood trauma. Any adult that has contact with children should be watching and assessing for acting out or suspicious behaviors. Health care professionals, family members, clergy, and next door neighbors can all remain vigilant when observing any child we meet.

Some teachers have had to become more creative through online teaching. One teacher put strategic safety questions in her Powerpoint presentations–questions and answers which would be sent directly to her without parental knowledge. Another makes a weekly effort to reach out to disconnected and silent families. His efforts have uncovered many challenges that parents were hesitant to admit and have helped families feel more connected and supported.

Prevent Child Abuse America put out this incredible resource for parents, children, adolescents, community members, policymakers, health care workers, educators, and more! I have found this resource to be incredibly helpful when working with families and children in my own community.

Stay connected as much as possible. Utilize Facetime/Zoom options, play online games with kids in your family, write letters, send carrier pigeons… whatever it takes to stay connected to the families and children in your life. As Dr. Merrick of Prevent Child Abuse America said, “Social distancing does not have to mean social disconnectedness.” Stay mindful, stay well, stay connected.

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