ACEs, the cards you're dealt

ACEs- It’s Not About the Cards You’re Dealt

Adverse Childhood Experiences, the cards you're dealtRandy Pausch was a Carnegie Mellon University professor. He had agreed to give a talk modeled after a series of hypothetical “final talks.” So, the idea is that the presenter is supposed to assume this will be their final chance to share their wisdom with the world.  He reflected deeply on his life, looking for the best way to talk about what mattered most to him. It was his chance to share his own life lessons to help others make the most of their lives. He titled his talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

A month before giving his lecture, Randy got the most dreaded news about the pancreatic cancer he had been dealing with for the past year. Randy learned he was now terminal. Therefore he had only a few months left to live. Ironically, the hypothetical “final talk” now looked like it really could be his last lecture.

With grace and humor and heart, he delivered his lecture to a full house. He emphasized how important it is for us to make the most of our time. He encouraged us to have fun in everything we do. His story reminded us to dream big. And he showed us how to enable the dreams of others.  Sounds like maybe he was secretly a youth worker at heart.

So, why am I telling a story about Randy’s lecture when I’m supposed to be blogging about ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences? If you’ll allow me a little bit of a stretch here, I’ll connect the dots with this quote from Randy’s talk:

“It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.”

None of us got to choose the cards we were dealt in childhood. For many of us, the hand contained ACEs, but not the good kind. ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, are a way to describe the kinds of trauma and stress youth often experience. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes Adverse Childhood Experiences into three groups: abuse, neglect, and family/household challenges.

ACEs can include

  • Emotional abuse
  • Household alcohol abuse
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Household mental illness
  • Physical abuse
  • Witnessed domestic violence
  • Sexual abuse
  • Household drug abuse
  • Incarcerated household member

Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences is essential in youth work.

The fact that the youth you work with, or even you yourself, may have been dealt some ACEs in childhood does not doom you or them to a lifetime of negative experiences. Bad experiences don’t automatically lead to bad behaviors or create “bad” kids. As Youth Workers, it is especially important to look at what may be behind “bad” behavior. Therefore ACEs are a way to help us understand the underlying causes.

And this is how you can help young people learn to more positively play the hand they’re dealt. Model and teach resilience. According to University of MN research, one important factor to build resilience is a close and trusting relationship with a caring adult – that’s you!

By understanding ACES, you can expand your own skill in enabling the dreams of others.

Want to learn more? We invite you to join us for our upcoming training, “Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).”

Curious to hear what other life lessons might be available to you in The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch? You can watch his TED talk here.


Barbara Van Deinse is a Membership Representative for the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA).