Creating a safe environment for children takes a concerted effort by not from parents, but from experts in child development experts and community members. While it obviously makes practical sense to channel this effort into developing preventive measures to protect children from adversity, the painful reality is that even under the best of circumstances, we can’t prevent all adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Fortunately, new research shows that we can do A LOT to buffer kids from the long term effects of stressful and traumatic events. This blog post addresses the significant findings from the CDC’s landmark study on ACEs; reminding ourselves of the protective factors that can buffer children from the negative effects; and how we as a community can support each other in creating a nurturing environment for children.
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?
Events that happened before a child was 18 that not only impair a child’s development, but also increase risk factors for unhealthy adult choices are ACEs.
Examples of ACEs include:
Absentee or abusive parents
Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or neglect
Living with someone with alcohol or drug abuse issues
Witnessing domestic violence (either physical, emotional, or verbal)
Living with someone with a chronic and untreated mental or physical illness
Having a close family member involved with criminal activity or in and out of jail
It is important for anyone who works with children to be aware of the visible signs of stress. For instance, some kids have nightmares or recurring thoughts of the stressful event. Many will re-enact the trauma through play. Other possible evidence a child has experienced an ACE includes behavior changes such as seeming distracted or withdrawn.
Findings from the ACEs Study
The Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in partnership with Kaiser Permanente, conducted a landmark ACE study from 1995 to 1997 with more than 17,000 participants.
The study found:
ACEs are more common than once thought: Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs.
ACEs cluster: Almost 40% of the Kaiser sample reported two or more ACEs and 12.5% experienced four or more. Because ACEs cluster, many subsequent studies now look at the cumulative effects of ACEs rather than the individual effects of each.
ACEs have been associated with many adult health problems: As researchers followed participants over time, they discovered that a person’s cumulative ACEs score has a strong, graded relationship to numerous health, social, and behavioral problems throughout their lifespan, including substance use disorders.
As a result of this study and subsequent findings, it is becoming more common for pediatricians and primary care physicians to routinely ask parents to complete an ACE questionnaire. Similar to a health status or family history form, the 10-question ACE questionnaire helps healthcare professionals assess risks for stress and related health issues. The higher the score on the ACE quiz, the higher the risks for developing health and behavior issues down the road.
But it’s important to keep in mind that ACE scores don’t take into account positive life experiences. In fact, it is only recently that researchers have devoted attention to the incredible power that positive experiences early in life have to build resilience and protect a child from the long term effects of trauma.
Protective Factors that Buffer Against ACEs
A new documentary film, Resilience, explores both the recent science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and new initiatives encouraging adult behaviors that help children develop psychological defences against stress. Having even one caring adult who understands and can provide a safe environment can mitigate long term effects of early trauma, psychologists say.
So what can you do to buffer the kids you know from ACEs?
- Serve and Return Interaction: Because stress and trauma affect the way the early brain develops, Harvard psychologists encourage parents to counteract developmental deficits using specific techniques to interact with even their infant children.
Create Optimism: Find ways to provide genuine compliments and to encourage his/her strengths. Brain science shows that we can actually train our brains to be optimistic and hopeful about the future by practicing positive self talk. Teach and reinforce this kind of brain training in the kids you interact with.
Be a Source of Comfort: Learning how to manage our emotions in a healthier way is a challenge for adults and kids alike. Provide empathy and comfort when children are upset. Stay with them until they recover and work with them to find coping mechanisms (e.g., taking deep breaths, counting to 10 slowly, etc.) to return them to a calmer state.
Help kids maintain healthy relationships: When parents separate or divorce, it can be more challenging to help kids maintain healthy contact with grandparents, supportive adults, and extended family members. One key to reducing stress is making the effort to maintain contact with these positive influences. For example, if you move away from a neighbor or childcare provided with whom your child has bonded, set up playdates to give your child a chance to adjust to the new arrangements.
The Importance of Community Support
The Exchange Family Center wants our community’s help to spread the word about buffering kids against ACEs. If you are a pediatrician or know a pediatrician talk to them about the importance of asking about family events, not just health events. We are always looking for volunteers to support our efforts too.
Keep in mind that while therapy for adults can also counteract much of the long term negative effects, there is no reason to wait until someone is an adult to intervene. Early intervention and even prenatal care is more likely to have a lasting effect.
Feel free to steer parents in the direction of our programs offering positive parenting advice. And if nothing else, be a trusted confidant and positive influence for any child in your life. It is easy to let children know you are on their side!