Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have a powerful impact, both medically and spiritually. So emphasized family medicine physician and sexual education and counseling expert Melinda Skau during a presentation at the Adventist-Laymen’s Services and Industries (ASi) annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky, United States, in early August 2019.
Skau’s seminar presentation, entitled “Painful Past, Eternal Opportunities,” sought to show how God can use the painful experiences in a person’s life to showcase His glory as He restores them to His image. She proceeded to highlight practical, scriptural methods of healing which, she said, can undo the evil.
The Dire Fallout of Childhood Trauma
According to a common definition, childhood trauma includes a range of experiences such as abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), physical and emotional neglect, and household dysfunction due to such factors as mental illness, an incarcerated relative, substance abuse, and divorce. Comprehensive studies have shown how much damage is caused by ACEs for the victim’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health later in life.
“Adults who experienced ACEs show those affect their behavior later in life, often leading them to lack of physical activity, missed work, smoking, alcoholism, and drug use,” Skau said.
The victim’s physical and mental health seems to be most affected by ACEs, Skau explained. “Individuals who went through ACEs often end up suffering from severe obesity, diabetes, depression, heart disease, cancer, and stroke,” she shared. “They also may suffer more often from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], broken bones, sexually transmitted diseases [STDs], and suicide attempts.”
This is not hypothetical, Skau emphasized, as she showed studies that reveal how adults who experienced ACEs die, on average, 20 years younger than those who did not.
“People with ACEs showed a steep increase in the likelihood of suffering a wide range of diseases, including autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatic diseases,” Skau said. “ACEs even correlate more powerfully to heart attack risk than traditional risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.”
Why We Must Talk About It
Skau said it is important to discuss the topic, first of all, because ACEs are so common.
“According to studies on the topic, 64 percent of people have at least one ACE,” she shared. “Also, 28 percent reported physical abuse, and 21 percent reported sexual abuse.”
ACEs are not only prevalent but also seem to be present in a cluster. Studies show that 40 percent of people reported two or more ACEs, and one in eight people had four or more ACEs, Skau said.
“There’s also a connection between ACEs and response to disease,” she said. “The more ACEs the person experienced, the more disease they are likely to suffer later in life.”
Another crucial element that should drive and inform the discussion, according to Skau, is the impact on the spiritual life of the victims. “If their pastor molested them, they may have developed a negative picture of God,” she said. “The same applies if their father was violent, for instance. How they see God is affected.”
Not a Death Sentence
Skau, who shared examples of her own troubled childhood as a victim of abuse and several other ACEs, made clear that ACEs should not necessarily mean a death sentence for those who go through them. In fact, she said, a speaker she heard years earlier who thought otherwise motivated her to live her life helping victims of ACEs to bounce back and recover.
“On that occasion, the speaker said there was basically no hope for a person with ACEs,” she recalled. “But Christians should never let their personal story define what they are,” Skau emphasized. “God has made so much for us that we must not allow others to define our story.”
In Skau’s case, it led her to start working with a ministry called “Hearts Being Healed” and hosting an after-care Bible study entitled “Treasure Out of Trauma.” It was in helping others, she said, that she found meaning.
“There was a time when I would have done anything to erase my past,” Skau confessed. “Now, I wouldn’t erase a second of what God has given me in my life. His purpose is to use our traumas for His glory. He uses them for His light to shine through.”
A Long and Painful Process
At the same time, victims should remember that learning to develop resilience after going through ACEs is often a long, painful process, Skau emphasized.
“Against your difficult past, you need to learn to recognize what daily problems flare your emotions and make you relive your pain,” she said. “And then, you need to spend time with the Lord, sitting with the emotion you are feeling, trusting that the Lord cares about you and wants to help you.”
It is easier said than done, Skau acknowledged. In her case, she said, at first it was only by faith that she decided to believe Scripture over her feelings. “It took me about 30 years to align my beliefs with my feelings,” she said.
The Role of the Christian Counselor
Skau said a Christian counselor can have a life-giving influence on victims of ACEs. “Just allowing a victim to talk and share his or her story can cut symptoms up to 30 percent,” she explained.
At the same time, a Christian counselor can lead the person to assess his or her system of beliefs, spiritual support system, and relationship to prayer, among other elements. “By asking questions, the counselor can lead the person to understand that whatever happened in the past should not define his or her present,” Skau said. “We must teach victims to choose who they will allow to set their meaning.”
Resiliency choices for children who suffered ACEs often involve finding a caring adult. “Christian counselors can help ACEs victims understand that besides any support group and human tool, Jesus is our caring adult,” Skau said. “We can remind victims that reading, listening to, and memorizing Scripture can assist them on those days they feel overwhelmed by their past,” she said. “Music, prayer, exercise, and enjoying nature can be of great help too.”
God’s Promise to Victims
Skau explained that victims who believe in God often question whether God cares about them or not. In that sense, Christian counselors need to show that they care so that victims of ACEs can be led to accept that God also cares.
“It is true we may not understand some things until we get to heaven,” Skau conceded. “After all, God never said that you are not going to suffer, but God promises to be with you in the fire,” she emphasized. Skau added that many verses in the Bible can assist a person to develop resilience and regain hope, as well as encourage those working with ACEs victims. She quoted Isaiah 61:3, where the prophet wrote, “[The Lord] sent me to give them flowers in place of their sorrow, olive oil in place of tears, and joyous praise in place of broken hearts” (CEV).
Skau shared that her own life experiences are evidence of God’s ongoing mercies.
“In my case, God has allowed me to suffer some evil things, but He has shown me His wonders and His grace and has performed wonders in my life,” she said.