Practitioner Review: Twenty years of research with adverse childhood experience scores - Advantages, disadvantages and applications to practice

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2020 Feb;61(2):116-130. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13135. Epub 2019 Oct 14.


Background: Adverse childhood experience (ACE) scores have become a common approach for considering childhood adversities and are highly influential in public policy and clinical practice. Their use is also controversial. Other ways of measuring adversity - examining single adversities, or using theoretically or empirically driven methods - might have advantages over ACE scores.

Methods: In this narrative review we critique the conceptualisation and measurement of ACEs in research, clinical practice, public health and public discourse.

Results: The ACE score approach has the advantages - and limitations - of simplicity: its simplicity facilitates wide-ranging applications in public policy, public health and clinical settings but risks over-simplistic communication of risk/causality, determinism and stigma. The other common approach - focussing on single adversities - is also limited because adversities tend to co-occur. Researchers are using rapidly accruing datasets on ACEs to facilitate new theoretical and empirical approaches but this work is at an early stage, e.g. weighting ACEs and including severity, frequency, duration and timing. More research is needed to establish what should be included as an ACE, how individual ACEs should be weighted, how ACEs cluster, and the implications of these findings for clinical work and policy. New ways of conceptualising and measuring ACEs that incorporate this new knowledge, while maintaining some of the simplicity of the current ACE questionnaire, could be helpful for clinicians, practitioners, patients and the public.

Conclusions: Although we welcome the current focus on ACEs, a more critical view of their conceptualisation, measurement, and application to practice settings is urgently needed.

Keywords: Adversity; child abuse; early life experience; social psychiatry; social work.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences / statistics & numerical data*
  • Child
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders* / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders* / etiology
  • Mental Disorders* / therapy
  • Psychometrics / standards*
  • Risk Assessment / standards*