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Black and white. Child punching. Angry child.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the impact of coronavirus on childhood trauma

For anyone working with vulnerable children and families, knowledge of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) is something that helps with a more comprehensive and empathetic understanding of context and behaviour. ACEs are currently understood as a set of 10 traumatic events or circumstances occurring before the age of 18.

Five of the ACE categories are forms of child abuse and neglect, which are known to harm children and are punishable by law, and the other five categories represent forms of family dysfunction that increase children’s exposure to trauma. Studies into ACEs show that someone who has experienced more than four ACEs in childhood has a higher chance of poor adult outcomes.  

The traumatic experience can be a single event, or prolonged threats to, and breaches of, the child’s safety, security, trust or bodily integrity.  

ACEs occur across the socio-economic spectrum and whilst trauma is not limited to poor familieschildren living in poverty (and in the most deprived areas) are at greater risk of experiencing adverse experiences, according to Dr Morag Treanor (Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at Stirling University). With this knowledge in mind, what might happen when children, already living in an environment that is prone to adverse experiences, are locked down in their homes as the result of a pandemic, for example?  

Executive Director and Clinical Child Psychologist Dr Eli Gardner recently wrote:  

Poverty has an impact on parents’ ability to manage stressful events and can make good family functioning and strong parent-child relationships difficult. Parents who lack a sense of competence not only show less adequate parenting, but also tend to withdraw from interactions with the child and give up addressing problem behaviours altogether. One does not have to think too hard to imagine the psychological impact of pre-existing familial trauma exacerbated by a situation where fraught relationships have no room to breathe.

Whilst lockdown in the UK is in the process of easing many parents have chosen not to send their children back to school and there are some families who have not even left their houses in weeks – the fear of catching coronavirus is that crippling. At Kids Matter, we hear stories all the time of parents who just want to give up, especially with multiple children to home school. 

To date, our best example of what life in lockdown has meant for vulnerable families is China. As one of the first hit countries (if not the first) China is ahead of the rest of the world in terms of managing the pandemic and processing its aftereffects. It didn’t take long for news of  increased reports of domestic violence to hit the media, and soon thereafter followed news of China’s vulnerable (the poor, the disabled, the very old and the very young) falling through the gaps. Many countries, including our own, have followed suit. As more and more research comes to the fore, it is clear that many children in the UK have been and are currently subject to increased ACEs, exacerbated by lockdown conditions. The Centre for Social Justice has reported the following: 

  • In the first month of lockdown alone, domestic abuse charges by police rose by 24 per cent, while calls to helplines and charity referrals have soared. Calls to the National Abuse Hotline in the UK rose by 65 per cent over a similar period while Refuge helpline for victims saw a 120 per cent increase in one day. 
  • Similarly, there have been global warnings from the police about an explosion of child sexual abuse under these conditions. There are 300,000 adults in the UK who are currently deemed a threat to children. 
  • Reports of obscene material online more than doubled in the first month of the UK’s lockdown. 
  • Problems of addiction have also been quietly but predictably growing during the lockdown. A survey from Action on Addiction found that 39 per cent of people who were in recovery from an addiction prior to lockdown have experienced a relapse or a re-occurrence of their addictive behaviour since lockdown. On a national scale this may mean more than one million people have experience some form of relapse during lockdown. 
  • The child of an alcoholic has a six times increased risk of experiencing physical and sexual abuse in the home. Right now, tens, and potentially hundreds of thousands of children are trapped with their abuser 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the situation is getting worse. 

Yes – we are living in the midst of the worst recession in history. Yes – the attainment gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged has widened from 6 months to 18 months. And this has happened in the blink of an eye. But what about the children hurting, suffering, isolated and withdrawn – who know nothing about recessions and attainment gaps, only in terms of a vague understanding that they were having a hard time before and now they are having a harder time still. Whilst escape to school might be a quick-fix solution, we are facing a massive social injustice that was costing society £25 billion per year before Covid-19; what might it cost now?  

Before we know it, summer will be over and schools will be ready to accept all learners back (unless a second wave stops this from happening); there will be many vulnerable children who’ve spent six months locked inside with their families – hungry, sad, frustrated and worse. What might school staff, parents and those services still operating expect from these potentially traumatised children?  

We can expect them to overreact. Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity – such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship – without adequate adult support. Childhood maltreatment has been associated with altered functioning in a number of neuro-cognitive systems, which means that an affected child’s ability to process threat functions like a faulty smoke alarm – it will bleep hectically at even the smallest amount of danger. 

So what do we do? 

There is no short or easy answer, and there never has been but how much more information do we need for a united effort to rally around these vulnerable families? 

Edward Davies, Policy Director of the Centre for Social Justice think tank, writes: 

The differential in the equation that will leave some children scarred for life by this lockdown while others emerged completely unscathed, is the quality of relationships in our homes.

ACEs are preventable. Creating and sustaining safe, nurturing relationships and environments for all children and families can prevent ACEs and help all children reach their full potential. There are three ways to do this: 

  • Teach skills eg. social-emotional learning or parenting skills and family relationship. 
  • Connect youth to caring adults and activities eg. mentoring programmes. 
  • Intervene to lessen immediate and long-term harms eg. victim-centered services or family centered treatment for substance use disorders. 

Our Kids Matter parenting programme equips parents and carers facing disadvantages with confidence, competence and community, enabling their children to thrive. But even with an impassioned vision to see every child ion need raised in a strong family and a strong focus on family relationships, we are not a prevention even if we are an intervention. Our programme cannot solve the problems facing so many of the vulnerable families itoday’s (not quite) post-pandemic world; it will take a massive effort from everyone. 

Kids Matter is a programme that engages with families and young children before crisis point – it strengthens families by giving mums and dads the tools to be competent, confident parents or caregivers. To get involved, as a volunteer or by financially supporting our programme, please contact us at

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash



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