Your Child’s Environment Matters…For Life

“Yelling Is The Only Part Of Being A Father That I Enjoy!” – Red Forman, That 70s Show

It’s unlikely that Red Forman, the dad from “That 70s Show,” would teach any parenting classes . Red’s blunt, often offensive retorts ranged from cringeworthy to downright soul-crushing. 

Do dads like Red Forman still exist in 2022?  When the conversation turns to rough childhoods, spanking, or other negatives in the home environment, the response is often, “Hey, I turned out okay, so what’s the problem?” How many times have you seen the meme on social media proclaiming, “I was spanked as a child, which resulted in a condition known as respect”? Teasing and insults are generally laughed off as “just our family” or “it was a different era.”

So does it matter?

The ACES survey, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, measures the potential for long-term health consequences resulting from a turbulent home environment and exposure to traumatic events. 

The survey has only ten questions. The higher your score, the more likely you are to become morbidly obese, suffer from depression, have frequent headaches or migraines, struggle with major health conditions like heart disease or COPD, or even succumb to an early death.  

By extension, the higher your child’s score, the more likely she is to develop serious health and well-being issues later in life.  But as a parent or caregiver, you have the power to change these outcomes.

Aces Questions – Count the checkmarks next to any questions answered with YES

Before Your 18th Birthday:

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

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

#3. Did an adult or person at least five years older than you ever: a) Touch or fondle you, or have you touch their body in a sexual way?  b) Attempt to or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?

#4. Did you often or very often feel that: a) No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?  b) Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

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

#6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?

#7. Was your mother or stepmother: a) Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped or had something thrown at her?  b) Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard?  c) Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?

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

#9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

#10. Did a household member go to prison?

For a full interpretation of your results, please do some online research. One outstanding resource is

Ten types of childhood trauma are divided into two categories: personal experiences and exposure to the experiences of others. Five are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. The five related to others include a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who suffered domestic violence, a jailed relative, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the loss of a caregiver through divorce, death, or abandonment.

Even low-scoring people are at risk. About 25% of Americans have an ACES score of only one, yet their chance of becoming an alcoholic doubled. An ACES score of two translated to four times the risk of alcoholism.

A score of four or more increases the likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease by 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; and suicide, a chilling 1,220 percent. People with an ACE score of four are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be an alcoholic. People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have multiple marriages, and more autoimmune diseases. 

People with an ACE score of six or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.

And it doesn’t matter which ACEs a person has, the potential for harm and poor health outcomes are the same. Note to parents: the brain cannot distinguish one risk factor from another; it’s all toxic stress.

One frequently asked question is about the demographics of the study’s target population. The more than 17,000 ACE Study participants were mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class, college-educated, and all had jobs and great health care. 

Are you doomed to these problems if you have a high score? The short answer is no. You may have developed resilience strategies that allowed you to maintain good physical and mental health. People who have at least one caring, nurturing relationship have a better chance of beating the ACES odds. Human brains also have a certain level of “elasticity” that can help us bounce back from trauma. Finally, the test doesn’t account for a variety of other risk and protective factors.

I think a challenging mindset from the past is that kids’ behavior just needs to be punished, and if you do that, it will stop. The problem is, it might stop it in the moment, but we haven’t addressed the cause of the behavior.

– Jan Powers, Researcher, University of Iowa (source:

Parenting is a complex and challenging undertaking regardless of your income, social status, or level of educational attainment. Often it seems like no matter what we do as parents, we’re wrong. Does your toddler have an ear infection? Half of your friends will say go to the doctor and get him on antibiotics and the other half will be reciting antibiotic resistance literature and lecturing about the need to build up his immunity and ability to fight off infection. 

Many parents repeat what they saw and experienced growing up; after all, it’s the only parenting education most of us ever received.

The best news is that you have the power to stop the high ACES score cycle for your own children. Look for toolkits, videos, and folks nearby with expertise who can help you learn more.  Most resources are free.

Start by working to create and sustain a safe, stable, nurturing relationship and environment for your children. It doesn’t necessarily mean expensive changes: start by putting down your phone.  Make eye contact and conversation with your children. Create and incentivize routines like “bath, book, bedtime,” even when school is not in session.  Read and sing together. Take a walk. Listen to each other.

The Children’s Home Society of South Dakota, Lutheran Services in Iowa (including the Sioux City office), and Trauma Matters Omaha have professionally-trained, caring staff and excellent resources to begin the journey of changing your children’s lives. 

By Mandy Engel-Cartie

Executive Director at Girls Inc. of Sioux City


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