Methods to Assess Adverse Childhood Experiences of Children and Families: Toward Approaches to Promote Child Well-being in Policy and Practice

Christina D. Bethell, Adam Carle, James Hudziak, Narangerel Gombojav, Kathleen Powers, Roy Wade, Paula Braveman

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

123 Scopus citations


Background Advances in human development sciences point to tremendous possibilities to promote healthy child development and well-being across life by proactively supporting safe, stable and nurturing family relationships (SSNRs), teaching resilience, and intervening early to promote healing the trauma and stress associated with disruptions in SSNRs. Assessing potential disruptions in SSNRs, such as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), can contribute to assessing risk for trauma and chronic and toxic stress by asking about ACEs can help with efforts to prevent and attenuate negative impacts on child development and both child and family well-being. Many methods to assess ACEs exist but have not been compared. The National Survey of Children's Health (NSCH) now measures ACEs for children, but requires further assessment and validation. Methods We identified and compared methods to assess ACEs among children and families, evaluated the acceptability and validity of the new NSCH-ACEs measure, and identified implications for assessing ACEs in research and practice. Results Of 14 ACEs assessment methods identified, 5 have been used in clinical settings (vs public health assessment or research) and all but 1 require self or parent report (3 allow child report). Across methods, 6 to 20 constructs are assessed, 4 of which are common to all: parental incarceration, domestic violence, household mental illness/suicide, household alcohol or substance abuse. Common additional content includes assessing exposure to neighborhood violence, bullying, discrimination, or parental death. All methods use a numeric, cumulative risk scoring methodology. The NSCH-ACEs measure was acceptable to respondents as evidenced by few missing values and no reduction in response rate attributable to asking about children's ACEs. The 9 ACEs assessed in the NSCH co-occur, with most children with 1 ACE having additional ACEs. This measure showed efficiency and confirmatory factor analysis as well as latent class analysis supported a cumulative risk scoring method. Formative as well as reflective measurement models further support cumulative risk scoring and provide evidence of predictive validity of the NSCH-ACEs. Common effects of ACEs across household income groups confirm information distinct from economic status is provided and suggest use of population-wide versus high-risk approaches to assessing ACEs. Conclusions Although important variations exist, available ACEs measurement methods are similar and show consistent associations with poorer health outcomes in absence of protective factors and resilience. All methods reviewed appear to coincide with broader goals to facilitate health education, promote health and, where needed, to mitigate the trauma, chronic stress, and behavioral and emotional sequelae that can arise with exposure to ACEs. Assessing ACEs appears acceptable to individuals and families when conducted in population-based and clinical research contexts. Although research to date and neurobiological findings compel early identification and health education about ACEs in clinical settings, further research to guide use in pediatric practice is required, especially as it relates to distinguishing ACEs assessment from identifying current family psychosocial risks and child abuse. The reflective as well as formative psychometric analyses conducted in this study confirm use of cumulative risk scoring for the NSCH-ACEs measure. Even if children have not been exposed to ACEs, assessing ACEs has value as an educational tool for engaging and educating families and children about the importance of SSNRs and how to recognize and manage stress and learn resilience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S51-S69
JournalAcademic pediatrics
Issue number7
StatePublished - Sep 2017


  • adverse childhood experiences
  • child health
  • measurement
  • resilience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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