The Adults Who Saved Me + What You Need To Know About ACEs
I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that I have spent a considerable amount of the past 24 years processing and dealing with what happened during the first 21 years of my life. And it wasn’t until recently—as a 45-year-old woman—that I learned that there’s a name for what I experienced: adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
What are ACEs?
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is a research-backed term for the seven types of adversities kids may experience during childhood: 1-3) physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; 4) domestic violence; 5-6) living in a home with mental illness or substance abuse; and 7) incarceration of a household member.
I experienced 5 out of 7 of these adversities, both in and out of the home. This was a particularly sobering realization not only because OMG 5 OUT OF 7, but because research has shown that the more ACEs adults report from childhood, the worse their mental and physical health outcomes. In fact, 8 of the 10 leading causes of death are related to ACEs and this translates to 19 years of life lost.
Now, before you give up hope (or feel sorry for me), keep reading. Because what I’m going to share will help you strengthen your family as well as the families of those around you. I am certain of it.
ACEs: The Bad + The Good
There are four crucial things to know about ACEs. Honestly, two of them are depressing, but two of them are uplifting. Stick with me through the first two because then you will be fist pumping through the second two.
1. Early adversity is common
ACEs may not be happening in your home but it is likely happening on your street. ACEs are really, really common. We need to not let that depressing reality sink us, but let it motivate us to action.
2. Early adversity has biological implications
Going into the science of ACEs is well beyond the scope of this post, but let me just say that I am a former neuroscientist who knows how to interpret graphs (and look for sketchy data presentation) and I have seen the data and they are real. The summary is that ACEs change the way your genes work and the way your brain forms and functions in a negative way, particularly if the ACEs are severe and long-lasting and lead to toxic stress—the overactivation of a child’s stress response system, which can wear down the body and brain over time.
3. Early adversity is not destiny
OK, so at this point you may be thinking “OMG KIDS ARE DOOMED!” or perhaps “Christine Koh, how are you even functional if you experienced 5 of the 7 ACEs in a severe and long-lasting way?” Well, here is where I want the fired up fist pumping to start! There are ways we can protect against adversity and mitigate the effects of adversity and I now know the most crucial thing!
During a presentation at the American Academy of Pediatrics in March, I learned from Dr. Andy Garner of the CWRU School of Medicine that there is a black box between childhood experience and adult outcomes. If you think about it, it makes sense and you’ve undoubtedly seen it during your lifetime. There are kids who grow up with all manner of support and resources; some of them thrive and some of them tank. Similarly, there are kids who grow up with adversity; some of them thrive and some of them tank. The answer to why kids who experience ACEs thrive or tank involves two factors inside the black box: 1) level of toxic stress (the aforementioned negatives that lead to changes in genes and brain form and function); and 2) whether a kid has safe, stable, nurturing relationships (SSNRs).
In a nutshell, if a kid has insufficient SSNRs to help cope with toxic stress, that kid will be on a path towards negative outcomes, whereas if the kid has SSNRs to help cope with toxic stress, they will move towards positive outcomes.
Basically, as I have been learning about ACEs I have realized that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships saved me and helped me become resilient so I could thrive instead of tank as an adult. Other human beings helped me mitigate toxic stress; in particular, human beings who not only were safe, stable, and nurturing but who helped me identify the joy that turned off the stress response (I learned from Dr. Garner that this is a powerful thing). As I sat in the offices of the American Academy of Pediatrics, I thought about who those people were and felt an urgent need to weep and thank them for saving me. And I am doing so in detail here so you can understand how transformative relationships with other adults can be for kids, and perhaps think back to the adults who altered the course of your trajectory.
My elementary, middle, and early high school orchestra conductor Walter Pavasaris identified that I had natural musical ability and urged my Mom to find a way to get me private violin lessons. It was not easy; not just financially, but because my Dad thought music was fluff, which lead to my Mom sneaking me to music lessons for several years. Music soon became one of the things I excelled at (once I was excelling, my Dad got on board) and was a key source of joy to help me cope with stress. As a result, I ended up becoming a semi-professional violinist and a music and brain neuroscientist.
John McLellan was a middle school band conductor, so technically I never studied with him, but he offered me one of my first jobs: coaching elementary school music students. I now realize all these years later that his faith in me and his clear message of “I see that you have something to offer other kids” was a game changer for me. I went on to also teach private lessons through high school and college.
I only worked with orchestra conductor Ken Hanson for my senior year of high school but he knew me at a time when some particularly bad things were happening at home. Even though I didn’t tell him everything, he clearly could see it was bad and was incredibly supportive. We continued to work together after I graduated from college when I returned to work as a strings coach for John McLellan. Even though it was totally out of his way, Ken offered to drive me to make that happen since he knew I didn’t have a car and the public transportation system between my apartment and the school was nonsensical.
You will see the pattern that the music department in my school system was crucial for my survival: Fred Harris was the high school band conductor who also oversaw the marching band. His passion for music was infectious and he introduced me (and many other students) to incredible works of music (his orchestral mix tapes were legendary!). He also saw me through my desperate attempts to belong in the marching band. Fred coached me both on how to play in the drum corps, and then later how to make the best of my very elementary trumpet playing ability.
Joe Rancatore was my boss at Rancatore’s Ice Cream, where I worked in high school and over college breaks. During my college summers I worked a full-time office job during the day then staggered off the bus and worked until the store closed at 11pm. It was exhausting but was the only way I could make enough money to pay for college (I was on my own financially starting my sophomore year of college). I’m not sure if Joe knows this, but his joy and positivity as an adult was so different than anything I had ever experienced. The cool, hip, and happy vibe of working in his shop made me feel included in high school, and later while I was in college, this space saved me during a very dark time involving a long-term emotionally abusive relationship.
Nobody believes this but I was a terrible high school student. I recently saw a few transcripts my Mom saved and there were Cs and even Ds all over them (except for music class). Despite this, my English teacher (and school newspaper advisor) Lucy Myers kept telling me I was a smart person when so many others wrote me off because of my poor grades. Lucy and I have kept in touch over the years and she even showed up at one of my speaking gigs when I was on tour for Minimalist Parenting.
While I wasn’t a good student in high school, I flourished in college. Four of my professors at Wheaton College (Carlton Russell and Ann Sears in the music department and Derek Price and Grace Baron in the psychology department) had a lot to do with that. They all saw something in me and supported me, both when I succeeded and struggled. They listened to my ideas and provided honest, supportive feedback. They made me feel seen and cared for unconditionally. I was weighed down by a huge amount of emotional and financial duress during my college years and their support kept me going.
When I was an undergrad, then Wheaton College Dean of Students Sue Alexander was a tireless supporter. There are so many examples I could share but when I got accepted to be a White House Intern my junior year and told her I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t not work during the winter break she said, “I’m sorry Christine, there is no way you are not saying yes to this incredible opportunity. You earned it and you deserve it.” She made a financial contribution + also found a donor to support me so I could see what was possible when I accepted help.
When I write this all out I cannot believe my good fortune. Without me even asking, these people became my trusted adults—my safe, stable, and nurturing relationships—and they saved me. I would say I have no words, but clearly I have a lot.
4. We all have a role we can play when it comes to adversity
Now here is where YOU come in. We all have a role we can play when it comes to adversity. That is really good news.
PREVENTION you guys. Let’s talk about it. In my mind there are three things that parents can do to prevent ACEs:
1. Be a trusted adult
I just shared about 11 adults who saved me. I didn’t ask for help and they did not ask what was wrong. They simply supported and worked to nurture potential they saw in me. I know for certain that they did this for other kids too. You can be that for a kid. I have actually had some humorous conversations about trusted adults with some of Laurel’s friends and several of them have deemed me worthy of being their trusted adult. #humbled
2. Help your kids find trusted adults
The reality is, your kids are not always going to want to talk to you and that is OK and normal. Kids need a village too. I have talked with Laurel and Violet (probably ad nauseum) about the importance of trusted adults and we have identified a couple of parents + teachers for each of them. It was not a hard conversation to have. And already in Laurel’s freshman year experience, I have been blown away to now see three different experiences where teachers have identified an incredible opportunity for her to take pursue; they are helping her thrive. (Note to self: write thank you e-mails to these teachers.)
3. Find your support squad to help you when you feel like you’re going to lose it
Parent stress is a HUGE factor when it comes to ACEs—finding people to be part of your support network is crucial. Do you have a support squad? If not, now is the time to find it.
For example, I have several women who I can tell everything to: the good, the bad, the ugly...and then the massively ugly-cry ugly. For example, Paige Lewin has known me since 6th grade so she has literally seen me through everything and she loved and accepted me even when I was 100% uncool. Heidi Milne is my best friend from college; we immediately bonded over being the tough-circumstance kids at a well-to-do college and she saw me through some very dark times during college. And Asha Dornfest, Karen Walrond, and Jessica Ashley are women who I met through my Internet professional world and who have become ride or die friends. They not only know all of my personal business but they also understand the weirdness associated with the Internet professional world.
Safe, stable, and nurturing relationships + communities are HUGE in preventing ACEs. And today I am asking you to find/name your three either in the comments below or on social media (use the hashtag #findyour3). It’s totally OK for you to not explicitly identify them by name. The most important thing is to build that village.
We can do this, friends. TOGETHER.
This post is made possible with support from the American Academy of Pediatrics through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All opinions are my own.