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Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs)Mental HealthTrauma Informed

Do Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Impact First Responders?

eyes of a sad child

If you are a first responder with a high ACES’s score, does that impact you in any way? Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) are experiences that happen to a child anytime from birth up to their 18th birthday that can be anything from watching or experiencing abuse and violence to being in a household where members have drug or mental health issues.

The three types of ACE are:

  1. Abuse
  2. Neglect
  3. Dysfunctional Household


  1. Abuse
  • Emotional – When any adult that was living in the same home as the child exhibits non-physical behavior that belittles them so that they feel scared, insecure, vulnerable, ashamed, or threatened. Emotional abuse can take the form of:
    • Put-downs – name calling, humiliation in front of others, holding them responsible and blaming them for everything.
    • Verbal – yelling, insulting, using profanity and swearing at them.
    • angry shouting manCreating fear – making them feel frightened, bullied, worried that they will be physically hurt.
    • Gaslighting – making them question their thoughts and feelings by distorting the truth.
    • Rejection – dismissing their ideas, beliefs and points of view.
    • Isolating – keeping them away from friends and other family members, separating them from activities that they might enjoy.
  • Physical – When an adult in the household attempts to cause bodily harm, which may or may not result in actual injuries. Physical abuse can also include neglect.
  • Sexual – When an adult, adolescent, or other child in the household engages or attempts to engage in sexual activity or touches the child in a sexual manner that makes them feel uncomfortable. Sexual abuse also includes non-touching abuse such as pornography, exposure or nudity, trafficking or taking pictures of them in sexual poses.
  1. Neglect
  • Emotional neglect – No one makes them feel loved. They don’t feel that anyone looks out for them or makes them feel important. When there was no feeling of closeness or family support.
  • Physical neglect – When no one in the home looks after them, keeps them safe, or provides medical care, if needed. The child does not have enough food to eat. Their clothes don’t fit or are always dirty. Parents or caretakers do not take care of them because they are always drunk, high, or absent.


  1. Dysfunctional Household
  • Parent treated violently – Domestic abuse exposure when a parent or caretaker was attacked and hurt by their spouse, partner, girl/boyfriend in a violent manner by being hit, slapped, shoved, punched, threatened with a gun or knife, or had something thrown at them.
  • Substance misuse – When a parent or guardian in the household had a problem with or misuses prescription or illegal drugs or alcohol in excessive amounts.
  • Mental illness – When a parent or guardian in the home struggles with mental illness or a mental disorder, was severely depressed or was suicidal.
  • Divorce – When the parents are divorced, separated and no longer live together.
  • Incarcerated – When a parent or adult living in the home leaves because of being incarcerated, either in jail or prison, especially for a long period of time, or a sibling was incarcerated in a youth offending institution.

prison cellProfessionals who have experienced childhood adversity may select their field in law enforcement, victim services or become a practitioner because of their own childhood traumas. Studies show that there is a link between childhood trauma and adult chronic diseases, heart disease, depression and suicide.

You might feel stigmatized surrounding getting help. For that reason, find a counselor who gets it – who understands the daily traumas that you witness as a first responder. You may be struggling with PTSD, depression, anxiety, alcohol use or suicide risk and have high ACES, as well. You may also be experiencing compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma. The provider you choose not only needs to have experience in evidence-based approaches, but also understand the impact of your daily traumas. You get it. You know that risky lifestyle behaviors, mental and physical health illnesses, low life expectancy and premature mortality rates are all strongly associated with ACEs.

So, what now? Consider a practitioner who understands you as a first responder. Consider finding a peer support program. Moreover, consider getting involved in stigma reduction initiatives. The toxic stress that you experienced as a child along with the toxic stress you are experiencing as a first responder might be eating away at you. Build your resilience today with other first responders. My FABULOUS framework focuses on first responder resilience. You are not in this alone!

Barbara is a leading authority and best-selling author on managing burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. As a nationally recognized keynote speaker, she motivates audiences to build their resilience and create work-life balance. Her programs help leaders and teams manage workplace chronic stressors and get over burnout at work.

Barbara's newest book, "But I Didn't Say Goodbye: Helping Families After a Suicide", is available now on Amazon -

• Three weeks prior to giving birth to triplets, her father died by suicide. Her story was featured in the Emmy award winning documentary, Fatal Mistakes, Families Shattered by Suicide narrated by Mariette Hartley. Many employees are grieving personal loss. She offers programs for leaders on lost productivity and performance while managing grief at work.

• As a sought-after keynote speaker who has presented to over 500 groups since 1991, including corporations, state and national associations and non-profit organizations, Barbara offers work-life balance strategies for leaders to implement right away. With clarity and humor, her speaking engagements are designed to give audiences powerful and practical strategies of work-life balance, wellbeing, and self-care that can be implemented immediately.

• Barbara is a Board-Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and Diplomate with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. She received a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Arts degree in community health, with a concentration in thanatology, both from Brooklyn College.


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