McNerney: Being Kind Now Leads to a Healthy Adult Later

By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose

A number of years ago, the insurance company Kaiser Permanente set out to determine if there was any connection between negative childhood experiences and health issues later in life. For instance, is there a connection between heart disease and a difficult childhood? To date, more than 144,000 adults have taken the survey.

They developed a questionnaire that focused on three major areas of an adverse childhood: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Ten questions were asked, and each “yes” answer was scored as one point. Here is an example: “Did you often or very often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?” Answering yes to this question would add one point to the ACEs score. The more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the higher their ACEs score. The lowest score is zero and the highest is 10.

Their findings were stunning. Many of the common adult health problems were directly connected to adverse childhood experiences. The study found a connection between adverse childhood experiences and obesity, depression, addiction, and smoking. Surprisingly, there was also a direct connection for health issues that we never thought were caused by a difficult childhood, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and asthma.

More troubling was the fact that the higher the ACEs score, the larger the health difficulties. At least 60 percent of those studied have an ACEs score of 1. The higher the score, the higher the risk for an unhealthy adult life.

Fortunately, this is a public health issue that can be prevented by doing our best to provide a caring, calm household for our kids. By looking at the ten areas of that make up the ACEs quiz, I have developed a list of to-dos that will have a direct impact on our children:

1. Get rid of the “I turned out OK” argument. We often give ourselves a break by thinking, for example: “I was yelled at and I turned out OK. In fact, I think it made me stronger.” But did it really make you stronger? There is no real way of knowing. For the vast majority of children, verbal yelling is traumatic and does not produce a stronger person. You might have been in the minority, but who is to say, if you weren’t yell at as a child, that you might have turned out more than OK?

2. Create a kind environment. Abuse takes many forms, including physical, emotional, and sexual. The evidence continues to point to the fact that, from a child’s point of view, there is very little, if any, difference between corporal punishment and physical abuse. If there is the possibility that our children will be adversely affected by spanking, why take the chance when there are so many other effective ways to punish?
Emotional abuse is more difficult to define, but it can be just as harmful. Name calling, degrading and angry outbursts can be harmful and traumatic for a developing child. When our mood becomes unpredictable, it makes it very hard for a child to relax and enjoy their world.

3. Take care of yourself as a parent. Many of the adverse experiences are connected to how the parents treat each other and how they take care of themselves. Untreated depression or anxiety, substance abuse and addiction, and witness to violence in the home all lead to an increased ACE score.

4. Let your kids know how important they are. Emotional and physical neglect are two of the areas that show a direct connection to adult health. It’s important that our kids are told how much we love them and how important they are in our lives, so that as they grow, they know that the family can be a place of support and strength. It’s important that they know that their parents are always someone they can turn to when facing trouble. Of course, we love our children, but it’s just as important that we communicate it.

If you are interested in learning more about this study, I would suggest you start by taking the test yourself to determine your own ACEs score. The website,, has excellent resources and a simple questionnaire. I believe that the more we know about how our actions affect our children’s future, the better parents we will become.

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author ofHomework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!andThe Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at