10 Ways To Parent To Prevent ACEs
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 and storytelling are, of course, my own.
It’s not easy baring your soul on the Internet, but the reason I periodically do it is because in 13 years of blogging I have seen repeatedly that storytelling around pain, suffering, and survival not only brings people closer, but can also result in self-discovery—both for the writer and the reader. In the spring, I experienced just that when I learned and shared about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
In a nutshell, ACEs is a research-backed term for different types of adversities kids may experience during childhood, including: physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, witnessing domestic violence, living in a home with mental illness or substance abuse, and incarceration of a household member. I experienced 5 of these adversities, both in and out of the home, which was a sobering realization 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, which can translate to 19 years of life lost. The good news is, there are things that can mitigate the impact of ACEs and help kids thrive instead of tank. So in learning about ACEs and thinking through why I thrived instead of tanked, I realized that 11 adults saved me by supporting my potential, even when I was flailing and sometimes failing.
And what really struck me after that post went live was that three distinct themes emerged via the comments on my post. (I include sample quotes from actual human beings in parentheses.)
#1: OMG THIS HAPPENED TO ME TOO AND I HAD NO IDEA IT HAD A NAME. I truly could not believe how many people stepped forward to tell me that they also experienced ACEs but did not realize it had a name. I cried all the tears for all of us. (From one of my Instagram followers: “Wow. I've experienced at least 3 of these and many more with extended family members. Keep talking and sharing about the hardships kids face. I do feel like I've missed so much of my life but NEVER knew why until I just watched this IGTV.”)
#2: WAIT, WHAT? HOW DID YOU BECOME A FUNCTIONAL HUMAN BEING AFTER ALL THAT TRAUMA? A lot of people who knew me in elementary/middle/high school were shocked to learn that I struggled at all (apparently I hid it well). And the resounding response from people who didn’t know me back then was shock. It definitely drove home the fact that there is an assumption that if you experience intense hardship, you are doomed… which is not the case at all. (From one of my readers: “It's hard for me to imagine that you had anything but a perfect childhood and perfect grades in school because you are one of the most stable, productive, successful women that I know.”)
#3: WE CAN DO BETTER. It was enormously gratifying to hear that people wanted to prevent ACEs, and that they subsequently were stepping up to talk to their kids, be a trusted adult for another kid, or look to expand their support network. YES. We can do better! (From one of my readers: “Love this and so inspired to find ways to be a trusted adult to kids (and adults) in my village and help my kids find theirs. I've had a version of this conversation with my daughter (and I'm now realizing I need to do it with my son ASAP) and we identified a couple of teachers and a friend's mom whom can she talk to if/when weird stuff starts happening.”)
Given how action-oriented I am in all aspects of my life, it got me thinking: OK, so how have I broken that cycle now that I’m a parent? What have I done for my kids to create a home that feels safe, stable, and nurturing? What are the good lessons I can pull from the bad experiences? What are the key things I can recommend to parents who similarly want to safeguard their kids from ACEs? Here’s what I came up with:
1. Talk to kids about their bodies
I have joked repeatedly that I want to be a sex ed teacher in my next life. Like many kids, I got NOTHING in the way of sex ed at home, and nothing memorable or informative at school. In fact the only thing I can remember that is remotely memorable related to anatomy (and people, it’s a stretch!) is hearing my entire class break out into giggles when one of my teachers talked about grocery shopping and said the phrase, “chicken breast.” Talking to kids about their bodies—and using correct anatomical names and ultimately teaching them bodily autonomy—is a huge deal. Just roll through the awkward and get started. The conversations can be super simple and not a big deal (e.g., at bathtime!), though Violet was recently poring over and asking me questions about Robie Harris’ It’s Perfectly Normal, which I think is pretty awesome!
2. Talk to kids about healthy vs. unhealthy relationships
A follow up to talking to kids about their bodies is talking to kids about healthy vs. unhealthy relationships. I’m not going to sugar coat things; my lack of education and modeling in this department set me up for some seriously unhealthy situations, including one long-term, incredibly emotionally abusive relationship that colored nearly two decades of my life (OMG UGH). Again, you don’t need to be heavy handed, just use everyday touchpoints to bring up conversations and be clear that your kid deserves to be treated with the same respect and love that you expect them to issue up to others.
3. Be real (but age appropriate) about the tough stuff
Listen, there are a lot of terrible things happening in the world and the point is not to freak your kids out. However, in an age-appropriate way you need to be real about the tough stuff. For example, given some immediate circumstances, I have talked quite a lot about mental illness and substance abuse with Laurel and Violet. With Laurel (almost 15) I can dig deeper (things got seriously real recently, as you can read about in this 8 tough teen conversations post I wrote) but with Violet (8) I keep things really simple and fact oriented, e.g., “Sometimes people’s brains are wired differently and they really struggle in life, especially if they don’t get help from someone like Daddy [who is a therapist] or a doctor who can give medicine that will help them.”
4. Create one-on-one time
I think one of the most challenging things about growing up in such a large family with so much chaos was the lack of one-on-one time....especially with my Mom, who was a safe anchor, but who was understandably stretched so incredibly thin and dealing with a lot on her own. So even though yes, life gets tremendously busy, I have worked on being more aware of and intentional about the need to carve out one-on-one time with my kids, even if it’s just taking one of them to the grocery store with me, or taking a few minutes to read together. All the small moments matter.
5. Help your kid pursue joy (gently)
Back in the spring, I learned that joy can mitigate stress responses and subsequently realized that for me, music ended up being a huge part of my survival strategy; in fact, 6 of the 11 adults who I wrote about as people who saved me were music educators. I am not suggesting you go all Tiger Mom on your kids. I’m suggesting you present them opportunities as you are able and see what lights them up and then gently support them in that direction.
6. Teach your kids to be helpers
Parental stress is a major issue when it comes to the onset of ACEs and while some sources of stress are out of a kid’s control, one thing they can help with is being part of the family system. I know this sounds so tactical but you know what leaves me less resentful and stressed as a parent? When my kids help out around the house. Every week this summer I have been sharing about life skills to teach kids. Teach them to be helpers to lighten your load and also become functional human beings.
7. Be real about the good and bad of everyday life
Having grown up in an environment where failure most definitely = bad and anger meant terrifying things were about to start happening, I can’t say enough how important it has been for me to fill in the gray between the black and white for my kids. I have worked with them on expressing anger and frustration. I have been honest about when I’m having a bad day. I have talked to them about how it’s OK and sometimes super necessary to make mistakes and not crush everything (particularly in this “you need to crush all the things” culture we live in). I have talked to them about how people who love each other can disagree and get angry. And I have also taught them about how powerful it is to love, be kind, and let people help you.
8. Help your kids identify other trusted adults
As much as I love talking to my kids about all the things, I also know they need other trusted adults in their lives; that there will come a time when they don’t want to talk to me about things and that it also helps to have other adults watching out for them out in the world. I have talked with Laurel and Violet both about this and we have identified several trusted adults for both of them. It gives me immense peace of mind and I’m grateful for these other adults (and I’ve also offered myself up repeatedly to other friends as a trusted adult for their kids).
9. Build your support network
Parenting is one of the most rewarding, stressful, and insane rides ever and it still boggles my mind that no advance knowledge or training is required. But the one thing that I learned quickly is that you need your network. You need to find your sources of support—and those sources will change as your kids age. For example, while my support network for Violet typically involves backup pickup parents, for Laurel, I literally just made a pact with a close friend that we would tell each other immediately if we learned that the other daughter abused drugs or alcohol.
10. Don’t put yourself last
And last but most definitely not least, enough with parental martyrdom. Martyrdom breeds resentment and resentment breeds stress and intense levels of stress lead to bad things. Part of modeling healthy relationships to your kids involves modeling a healthy relationship with yourself.
Now I’m curious: what have been your crucial sources of support in your parenting journey? Or are you still looking? Find or name your three sources of support (whether it’s a resource, policy, or something else) in the comments or on social media (using the hashtag #findyour3).