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What is an ACE?

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

This feels like the right place to start with our ‘A – Z of useful stuff’ blogs…

what-is-an-ace?; adverse-childhood-experience; ace

So, what is an ACE?

ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experience and it’s a term used to describe events in a child’s life that might have an impact on their physical, emotional or academic development.

ACE's aren’t necessarily huge traumas like death or family separation; in fact, they’re often events that seem innocuous to the adults – things like moving house or changing school – things that an adult might see as a regulation life event - nothing to worry about…

How often have you heard adults say to children, “Don’t be silly! There’s nothing to worry about!” All. The. Time.

Thing is though, we’re adults. Our experience of the world is the same age as us and likewise for our children – their experience of the world is only as old as them so they don’t have the same ability to rationalise, prioritise, and reason as we do. What to us is a very minor thing – changing class / year group at school, for example, could be a major event for a child.

Think for a minute about a child who’s leaving nursery to go to ‘big school’. They’ve spent at least a year with the same children and grown-ups at nursery, building relationships, learning routines and systems, getting comfortable in their environment and then, one day, everyone they trust – their parents, other family members and their nursery staff – wave goodbye to them and send them off on their ‘New adventure’ with massive smiles and oodles of positivity.

What if it doesn’t feel positive to the child though? What if they’re terrified of going to ‘Big school’? It’s not unlikely is it, that the grown-ups will tell them, “Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to worry about…”


Because the adults have (some!) faith in the system. They understand that changing school is part and parcel of life; education isn’t negotiable so the child will just have to get used to it. The child’s fears though are very real to them – they didn’t even know there was a system, let alone that the system will change, every year, without fail or exception, for the next fourteen or so years of their lives! They’re four…. And so is their understanding of the world.

It’s not the event that makes the experience adverse for the child, it’s the response to the event that does that. If the terrified child feels safe and trusts their adults, taking risks is easier for them – they’re more able to trust implicitly that their grown-ups will keep them safe, and more importantly, won’t willingly put them in harm’s way. If this isn’t the case – for whatever reason – the child is left to fill the gaps in their knowledge and understanding themselves (and let’s be honest, every four-year-old thinks in terms of dragons, unicorns and Gruffalos!) so what are they conjuring up in their own minds about what ‘Big school’ will be like?!

what-is-an-ace?; adverse-childhood-experience; ace

How do we help?

Adults are really good at not telling children what they SHOULD be doing, only ever what they SHOULDN’T. So when they say, “My new teacher might be a Gruffalo with a unicorn horn and fire coming out of their mouth!”, we say, “Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to worry about… they’ll be lovely!” When in fact, we have NO IDEA what the new teacher will be like! Our knowledge and understanding of the wider world though, means we trust that the system won’t have employed any Gruffadragacorns…

Make time and space for your children to work through their fears and worries – however daft they might seem – because when it comes to the crunch, they won’t remember exactly what you SAID to them, they’ll remember how you made them FEEL about their worry.

They’ll remember that you took some time to put down that basket of washing and talked to them about how many Gruffadragacorns they’ve ever met in the world so far (hopefully none!) and that whilst you don’t know their new teacher personally, you DO know that teachers are usually kind and nice to children.

They’ll remember that you told them that it’s OK not to know where to put their bag and coat in the new classroom; that you reassured them that all the children will have the same issue and the teachers will help them with that on the first day.

They’ll remember that you told them it’s OK to feel nervous about new things, and often, that’s a very sensible response to things we can’t predict! They’ll remember that you took time to hear, listen and respond to their worries in a compassionate way and you helped them to find solutions, reason, and order in their chaos.

None of this will necessarily stop the child from being anxious or nervous about the event, but it might make the difference between their experience of that event being adverse or not.

what-is-an-ace?; adverse-childhood-experience; ace

Whose job is it?

OURS! If we don’t make the time to support our children when they’re worried about something we don’t see as a big deal, we’re responsible for the consequences of that. Children whose worries are minimised will find a way to cope with those worries themselves anyway – the worry doesn’t go away for the child just because we don’t agree that the thing they’re worrying about is worrisome! - and when we think about their four-year-old life-experience, that’s not likely to end well, is it?! They don’t have a wealth of life-experience to inform their decision-making and if you’ve ever lived with a four-year-old, you’ll know that foresight, reason, and risk assessment aren’t their forte at all!

Children who aren’t supported to work through their worries positively will end up with ingrained coping strategies that aren’t helpful in the long-term. Our methodology for ‘doing life’ comes in a huge part from watching our parents ‘do life’ and how our parents cope with adversity and respond to us in times of uncertainty, and will form the basis for how we manage these things ourselves.

Broadly speaking, this means that a child whose worries are dismissed will grow up believing that ignoring stuff makes it go away and we can all identify the pitfalls of that as a life-strategy! Words and phrases like “Overwhelmed” or “Bottled up” are used by young people and adults who don’t have the confidence or support network to safely work through their problems. In this context, ‘safely’ means without fear of judgement or negative repercussion. In other words, without fear of being told, “Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to worry about!”

what-is-an-ace; adverse-childhood-experience; ACE

Picture credit: Finikity Art

what-is-an-ace?; adverse-childhood-experience; ace

Top Tips!

  1. Make time for your child’s worries – they’re massive to them even if not to us.

  2. What we SAY isn’t nearly as important as what we DO and how we make them FEEL – take them seriously; be engaged with, and validate their worry.

  3. Check-in and re-visit – Ask them, “How are you feeling about X today? Do we need to talk about it some more?” Also, it IS OK to say at the end of their first day at ‘Big school’, “See! It wasn’t that bad after all, was it?!”

  4. If we don’t make time to actively hear our children when they’re telling us their worries about little things that don’t matter, they won’t feel safe and confident to tell us about the big things that do.

  5. Consider creating time in the day specifically for discussing worries – as adults we know not to let the sun go down on an argument - try doing the same for your child’s worries – put the worry to bed with the child so that each day starts worry-free!

what-is-an-ace?; adverse-childhood-experience; ace

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We also run a range of Workshops - including Understanding ACE's and the Importance of Trauma-Aware practice. To find out more and how to book please visit our Workshops page:


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