When Your Family Is the One To Blame – Your ACE Score

Have you ever felt that your family was never particularly “healthy”?

Or have you perhaps felt as though something was wrong, but could never quite figure out what or why?

If you were badly abused as a child, it’s typically easy to recognise. It’s probably simple for you to understand that your parents used to beat you, yell at you, or punish you in ways that continue to disturb you, even as an adult. Maybe you still have nightmares. Maybe someone from your family used to touch you in a way that you know now was inappropriate.

But what if you have never actually been exposed to such extremes of abuse, yet still you felt as though you were unwanted, unloved, not taken care of? Do you wonder whether that is something that could impact the quality of your life and relationships as an adult? How can you ever really tell whether something can be classified as abuse or not?


Early traumatic experiences can take many faces

It’s totally normal to feel confused. If something bad happened to you as a child, the details are probably long forgotten (maybe unconsciously), minimized, rationalized, or even suppressed. Your brain has done everything it possibly could to keep you going, but you cannot escape long-term consequences. There is always a cost.

So, here’s a gift. A really quick way to work out whether anything from your past may still require attention. Many of my clients have found that this tool promotes such a profound shift in understanding their past that I too want you to have it, even if we never meet face to face. The best news? It will take no more than two minutes to find the answers to your questions – It’s what we refer to as your ACE score.


So, what does ACE mean?

Unless you are really good at your research, chances are you’ve probably never heard of your ACE score. Or, even worse, maybe you have been to therapy before, but have still never learned about ACE and how it works. As not every therapist specialises in trauma, not everyone is aware of the study that helped shine a light on childhood abuse and neglect and the impacts these experiences may have on an individual. I know you don’t have time for a full recap, so here’s what you really need to know.

ACE is short for Adverse Childhood Experiences

ACEs include:

  • Being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents.
  • Being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you.
  • Feeling that your family did not support each other.
  • Having parents who were separated or divorced.
  • Living with an alcoholic or drug user.
  • Living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide.
  • Watching a loved one being physically abused.

Adverse Childhood Experiences are incredibly common, with research showing that at least 70% of the population has one or more ACE’s. Since they are so common, ACEs tend to evoke a sense of normalcy; though this doesn’t mean that they are healthy.


But my family really wasn’t so bad…

A home environment in which parents yell at their children, shame them or ridicule their actions tends to create a very dysfunctional and hurtful upbringing. With that said, remember this – you did not have to be physically abused in order to be badly hurt in life. Things like emotional abuse, verbal abuse and neglect have been proven to induce a dramatic, negative impact on your sense of self, your relationships and how you view the world around you.

When the topic of family comes up in therapy, clients often jump to defend their parents. They protect their positive attributes, describing “good” times and trying to convince themselves, and me, that things weren’t really that bad. Please know that this is completely normal and something we refer to as Empathic Reversal. Another painfully confusing issue is that because you grew up in it, you will assume that your upbringing was normal. I once worked with a client who had just ‘assumed’ that everyone was being molested by their father because she had always been told that it was ‘normal’.

I am sure that most of us, aside from traumatic memories, have some good memories too. However, it’s important to remember that being repeatedly insulted or humiliated by parents is not okay, nor is being rigidly controlled or demeaned. It does not matter that your parents changed their behaviour or quit drinking/drugs when you grew up. Your parents can be the world’s best grandparents now, but that doesn’t matter. Your brain and nervous system are pretty well formed by your teens, along with your sense of self, your view of the world and your place in it.


Why does something from my childhood affect my life so much today?

Adverse childhood experiences dysregulate a child’s nervous system. Their harsh and unpredictable nature creates toxic stress in body that affects normal functioning. And today, this dysregulated nervous system may turn to alcohol, drugs, exercise, food, pornography etc. for calm and a soothing effect. It does not turn towards others, simply because experience tells us that others cannot be trusted for comfort or dependability. Moreover, by growing up in what we call a shame-based family, the child ends up carrying a great deal of shame that belongs to their parents and not to them.

Do you view yourself as being unsuccessful because your self-esteem is so low that you simply do not believe you can achieve anything? Perhaps you have already tried self-help books on productivity, effectiveness, or success and yet, nothing seems to be working? Well, I’ve got news for you – it won’t work. If the cause of your struggles lies within your childhood and upbringing, that is where you have to start if you want to build a future that is different from your past.

If you’ve had any (and especially if you had several) ACE’s and haven’t yet explored how they affect your life today, I strongly encourage you to do so. You can start with determining your ACE score by answering 10 questions below.

Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Questionnaire

Finding your ACE Score

While you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life:


Did a parent or other adult in the household often:
Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or
Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?


Did a parent or other adult in the household often:
Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or
Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?


Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever: Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Try to, or actually have, oral, anal or vaginal sex with you?


Did you often feel: No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?


Did you often feel that: You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you?or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?


Were your parents ever separated or divorced?


Was your Mother or Stepmother: Often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes or often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?


Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?


Was a household member depressed or mentally ill or did a household member attempt suicide?


Did a household member go to prison?

Here’s a quick overview of what your ACE score means:

  1. ACEs are common. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of adults have at least one.
  2. ACEs cause adult onset of chronic disease such as cancer and heart disease, as well as mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.
  3. ACEs don’t occur alone. If you have one, there’s an 87% chance that you have two or more.
  4. As your ACE score increases, so does the risk of disease, social and emotional problems. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis 240 percent; depression 460 percent; attempted suicide 1,220 percent. People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.
  5. The more ACEs you have, the greater the risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. For example, people with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholic. People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune diseases.
  6. ACEs are responsible for a big chunk of workplace absenteeism and for costs in health care, emergency response, mental health and criminal justice. Childhood adversity contributes to most of our major chronic health, mental health, economic health and social health issues.

Your ACE score may be the real reason that you suffer from depression or anxiety, have a cardiovascular disease or a cancer, or simply just drink a bit too much. The list is long. What your ACE score actually means is that you have a history of early childhood trauma that is causing problems in your adult life.

It’s also worth noting that there are people with high ACE scores who do remarkably well in life. ACE scores don’t tally the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and protect a child from the effects of trauma. Having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma. So, if your ACE score is high and you consider yourself a healthy and happy person, it likely means that there was something or someone that helped you get through your difficult experiences to build the resilience necessary to create a meaningful life as an adult.

If you are ready to start healing the deep-rooted wounds of your past, please get in touch with me today. I would be honoured to guide you through this process.

Until next time,

Ilona Zaleska