Crow Wing Energized

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Physical Abuse

KaraGriffinBy Kara Griffin, MSW, LGSW is the Manager for the Social and Health Programs at Crow Wing County Community Services and co-chair of Crow Wing Energized.


Did you know that physically abusing children is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)? Physical abuse comes in many forms. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), “physical abuse is when a caregiver causes any physical injury, or threatens harm or substantial injury, on a child other than by accident. Physical abuse can range from minor bruises to severe internal injuries and death.” The website defines physical abuse “as any non-accidental physical injury to the child including striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child, or any action that results in a physical impairment or harms the child’s health and welfare.”


Physical abuse can result in damage to the brain, resulting in developmental delays and lack of growth in vital areas. Physical abuse has an overall long-term impact on the child’s health and wellbeing. Child abuse victims are more likely to exhibit mental health symptoms, struggle academically and display poor physical health.


According to the Center for Disease Control -Kaiser ACE study, 28 percent of adult participants experienced physical abuse as a child. Experiencing physical abuse as a child increases one’s risk for depression and anxiety, along with aggression, delinquency, and antisocial behavior. Physical abuse can have a lifelong impact on health and quality of life for victims.


It is important to realize that while we may think abusive caregivers are bad people, there are reasons that adults act abusively toward children. Adult caregivers may have experienced abuse as a child themselves, and are acting out what they saw as children. Many of the caregivers involved in the child welfare system grew up in unhealthy, chaotic, stressful, and abusive homes. Their early environment lacked nurturing, caring or developmentally appropriate activities. These childhood experiences often lead to mental health symptoms, chemical dependency, inability to control and express emotions, anger, and lack of ability to be self-sufficient. Physical abuse, along with the other ACEs, tends to be repeated in the next generation unless some form of healing intervention takes place.


Much of society sees ACEs children and adults as problems. These are the people who keep getting in trouble, and don’t seem to ever really change their behaviors. Society gives the message of “What is wrong with you!” When this message is internalized, ACEs individuals start to believe that something is wrong with them, that they have character flaws that cause their antisocial behaviors. This internalized negative self-talk becomes a downward spiral and self-fulfilling prophecy.


A more productive perspective on ACEs individuals is to ask the question “What happened to you?” rather than “What is wrong with you?” This question allows individuals to use the best thinking part of their brains, the prefrontal cortex, to analyze and understand how adversity has shaped their lives. It also sets the foundation for the development of an individualized healing plan for overcoming the negative effects of childhood adversity. The good news of resiliency building is that our brains emotional, thinking and behavioral patterns can be re-wired away from past negative experiences to positive and healthier patterns.


Building Resilience


According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy Strategies, communities can do the following to prevent ACEs from developing and heal those people who have already lived ACEs situations.

  • Facilitate friendships and mutual support among parents
  • Strengthen parenting skills, resources and education
  • Value and support all parents through culturally competent practices
  • Promote child’s social and emotional development
  • Provide resources for family crisis
  • Identify and respond to early warnings signs of child abuse and neglect


On a daily basis, this resiliency building takes the form of engaging our community’s youth and families in healthy activities, and removing barriers that prevent them from participating, such as fees or transportation. We can provide healthy and safe entertainment and recreation for families to attend, and build support among parents. As a community, we can break the cycle of abuse and neglect by supporting and educating caregivers and their families.