Adverse childhood experiences negatively affect adult life, says a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). One in four young adults were severely maltreated during childhood and approximately half of adults in England have suffered an adverse experience during their childhood.

Roughly one in ten adults have experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences. There are many forms of childhood adversity, ranging from physical abuse to emotional neglect.

Around 50,500 children in the UK are thought to be at risk of abuse right now, says the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Almost one in five children aged 11-17 have been severely maltreated.

The most common recorded experiences are:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Substance abuse in home
  • Mental illness in home
  • Incarceration of family member
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Witnessing violence against their mother

Adverse experiences are proven to affect behavior in adult life and increase the risk of physical and mental health problems. The larger numbers of detrimental childhood experiences correlate with a higher risk of health issues.

Adults who suffered child abuse visit the doctor more often, have surgery more often, and have more chronic health conditions than those who did not experience childhood trauma.

Traumatic events can not only alter the immune system, but can affect quality of sleep, lower the pain threshold, and result in negative adult behaviors.

Research shows that individuals with four or more of the 10 adverse childhood experiences are:

  • Two times more likely to smoke cigarettes
  • Four times more likely to engage in drug abuse
  • Seven times more likely to suffer from chronic alcoholism
  • Eleven times more likely to abuse drugs via injection
  • Nineteen times more likely to attempt suicide

Sufferers often hide childhood adversities because of elapsed time, shame, secrecy and social taboos against discussing these topics. More than one in five children, aged 11-17, who were physically hurt by a parent or guardian did not tell anyone else about it. More than one in three children who experienced sexual abuse by an adult kept it a secret, and that figure rose to four out of five when sexual abuse was from a peer.

The reality of childhood abuse is a challenging one. Though the most severe forms of physical abuse, such as homicide and deaths by assault, have been steadily falling, online abuse continues to grow. A UK research paper from the London School of Economics reports that 13 percent of UK 9- to 16-year-olds said they had been bothered or upset by something online in the past year.

However, there is also an increased willingness to speak out about abuse and neglect. The number of people contacting the NSPCC helpline increased by 15 percent in 2012/13 compared with the previous year.

Figures show that improving the lives of children who have been affected by adverse experiences in England can have positive impacts. Helping those affected at a young age can help reduce drug use and violence by 50 percent, reduce teenage pregnancies by 33 percent and cut binge drinking and smoking by 15 percent each.

Research concludes that stable and secure childhoods are critical to ensuring negative and health-harming behaviors do not occur in adult life. Creating safe, positive environments for children is essential. We all have a responsibility to ensure the protection of children both inside and outside of the home.