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Stepping out from the shadows: Overcoming Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)

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30-year-old Jessica (not her real name) recalls how unsettling life was for her as a child. Her parents divorced when she was very young, leaving her under the care of different relatives. Throughout her childhood, she moved frequently from house to house, but never really found a place to call home.

As she grew older, the fear of being and rejected crept into her romantic relationships. At times, she found herself overdependent on her boyfriend. Yet, on other occasions, she initiated breakups to preempt the possibility of being “abandoned”. The result: none of her relationships lasted long. Life’s challenges hit her hard, and she was eventually diagnosed with depression.

Jessica’s plight reveals the detrimental effects negative childhood experiences can have on adult lives. Studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences (ACE) significantly increase the risk of one developing a mental illness later in life.

According to research findings from the 2016 Singapore Mental Health Study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health, the top five most commonly faced ACEs are emotional neglect (46.5%), parental separation, divorce or death of a parent (21.8%), living with an abused mother or female guardian (8.2%), emotional abuse (8%), and living with family members who are mentally ill or suicidal (6%). Other ACEs include physical and sexual abuse, bullying, and having family members that are imprisoned or are substance abusers.

Almost 2 in 3 people (64%) in Singapore’s resident adult population are reported to have experienced at least one ACE in the first 18 years of their lives. This makes ACE common, and one might wonder if these experiences are truly damaging. Can’t someone naturally recover as time passes?

Not necessarily. Studies have shown that . This affects the development of the brain and increases vulnerability to mental and physical illnesses.

The figures are telling. Someone who has experienced an ACE is 3.7 times more likely to suffer from a mood disorder, compared with someone who has not experienced any ACE. He or she may develop unhealthy coping skills to deal with the multiple stresses in their lives, and partake in harmful activities like smoking or excessive drinking, which increase their risk of developing mental or physical illnesses.

But experiencing an ACE does not doom one to a lifetime of unhappiness. The key to moving beyond such trauma lies in building up psychological resilience, which can help negate stress-induced changes in the brain.

Promising ways to strengthen a child’s resilience include:

  • Fostering close relationships with competent caregivers or other caring adults

  • Cultivating individual problem-solving skills and self-regulation abilities

  • Participating in high-quality, evidence-based parent education and home visiting programmes

Fortunately, you can interrupt this cycle of pain through thoughtful parenting.

  • Reflect on your history, thought patterns, behaviours and triggers.

  • Educate yourself on the warning signs of emotional neglect in your children such as aggression, low self-esteem and withdrawal

  • Find the right help – see a counsellor if you need advice and support.

In so doing, parents can take the challenging but rewarding step towards moulding a family culture that breaks off from the negativity of the past and births new positive experiences instead, paving the way for a better future for their children.

Written by: Kimberly Tan, Lim Zhan Ting, Wong Sook Won


Harris, S. (2018). How to Combat the Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Council On Accreditation Blog. Retrieved from https://www.coablog.org/home/2018/4/9/combating-the-effects-of-adverse-childhood-experiences

Jain, S. (2020). Forum: Look out for emotional mental health of children. The Straits Times.

Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/forum/forum-look-out-for-emotional-mental-health-of-children

Mayo Clinic Health System. (2018). Overcoming Adverse Childhood Experiences. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/overcoming-adverse-childhood-experiences

Tan, T. (2020). Adverse childhood experiences raise risk of mental illness later. The Straits

Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/adverse-childhood-experiences-raise-risk-of-mental-illness-later

陈莹纮.《联合早报》“童年心理有阴影 将来未必不幸福”  Published 31/5/2020