A 1990s large-scale study by San Diego medical doctor Vincent Fellitti and Dr. Robert Anda of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked childhood trauma to poor adult health. These childhood traumas have been dubbed Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and are based on factors of abuse, divorce, imprisonment and substance use. ACEs have been at the forefront of many recent community conversations as social service organizations discuss what can be done locally to break this damaging cycle.
Mount Mercy’s Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy Dr. Jacob Christenson is teaming up with graduate student Nicole Brighton to address community concerns through research with Tanager Place, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping children and families.
“I originally wrote about this topic (ACEs) simply in response to an assignment for Dr. Christenson's Research Methods class,” said Brighton. “Eventually it evolved into a thesis, which in turn Dr. Christenson prompted me to send as a research proposal to Tanager Place in the hopes of receiving grant funds and completing a research study.”
In May 2014, Christenson and Brighton’s proposal was approved, and a grant was awarded to fund a three-year study on the connections between caregiver and child ACEs.
“Past research has explored how traumatic childhood experiences have affected adult lifestyle choices and health,” explained Christenson. “Our research will explore the relationship between ACEs scores of a parent and ACEs scores of their child, and we will look at how these scores impact their abilities to bond with each other. We’ll also measure the influence ACEs have on the parenting skills of the caregiver.”
“I am hoping the study will show that there is a significant correlation between a caregiver's adverse childhood experiences and their attachment to their children,” said Brighton, “and in understanding this connection, I trust it will be beneficial for both families and therapists.”
The pair hopes their findings will help behavioral health professionals treat and educate families who have experienced trauma in order to help them break cycles and promote healing.
“Without this gap in research being filled,” Christenson stated, “intergenerational traumas will likely continue to spread through families. By breaking patterns, it’s our hope that families are better able to cope and thrive through new treatments designed to address their specific needs.”
The quantitative study will collect data from at least 200 Tanager Place families and will conclude by May 2017.