I had an amazing childhood growing up, and whenever anyone asked, I would say the same: “My childhood was great!” However, there were things I experienced in my childhood that I still remember to this day that not only impacted the way that I think and do things but the way I interact with people as well. That’s due to ACEs. You may remember me talking about it initially in a post I did a year ago on Understanding Aces and How You Can Help. However, here’s a refresher on ACEs.
What Are ACEs?
ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) are potentially traumatic events that happen in childhood and fall into 3 categories.
- Abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual)
- Neglect (physical or emotional)
- Household Challenges (mental illness, domestic violence, divorce, incarcerated relative, substance abuse).
The more a child is exposed to ACEs, the more at-risk they are in adulthood of experiencing depression, liver disease, alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse, STIs, teen pregnancy, and even suicide attempts or death by suicide.
How ACEs Impact Children
We all have a built-in mechanism that allows us to respond to danger. It’s called the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. It’s a stress response whenever our body perceives a threat. However, it’s only meant for short bursts to protect us from danger. When our kids experience traumatic events that keep them in this mode for extended periods of time, it produces toxic stress that can impact that child’s health in the future.
Let me get real and personal, and this is something that I wasn’t quite aware of until I started learning about ACEs.
My son Mikael, now 16, is autistic. That means that he learns and does things differently than my other three kids who are considered “normal.” As a mother who never knew what autism really meant, I had to get books to teach me how to communicate with him. However, as he got older, he started becoming more “difficult,” and it has been challenging to deal with a teenager who doesn’t listen to anything I have to say.
Before I knew better, I would use negative criticism and compare him constantly to his siblings. Over time, I noticed that he would alienate himself from the family and only talk if spoken to. He kept to himself in his room and would only leave if he needed to eat. While Mikael might look good on the outside, on the inside he was dealing with toxic stress that later in life could impact his health and cause the things mentioned above such as drug abuse, alcoholism, etc.
I knew that things needed to change, but before it could change, I needed help so I reached out to my “three”, and I’ll discuss what your three means more with you below. One of my three was a therapist, and I enrolled both of us into family therapy and that has helped tremendously.
How Can We Help Protect Our Children’s Mental Health and Prevent ACEs
Eliminate negative criticism
Negative criticism can harm a child’s self-esteem more than you realize, especially if it’s constant. Instead of offering negative criticism, how about constructive criticism? Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, point out the things they did right and how they can correct the wrong. Never belittle your child—They will internalize the negative things you say, and the hurt that causes can last a lifetime.
Offer words of encouragement
A kind word goes a long way. Instead of putting your child down, start offering words of encouragement. Tell them how proud you are of them and give them positive self-affirmations. A simple note in their lunch box saying, “Today is going to be a great day for you” can mean so much.
Let them know your love is unconditional
Your love should not be condition-based. Let your child know that you love them unconditionally, whether they make bad or good decisions, but you hope that they will always make the right decisions. Let them know that no one is perfect, and it’s perfectly ok to make mistakes. Remember you can dislike your child’s actions but never your child, and remember to let them know there’s a difference.
Spend one on one time together
If you can, carve out time to spend with your child one-on-one. This is an opportunity to talk with each other, finding out how the day/school went, and bond more as parent and child. These are the times that they may look back on as an adult. As a mother of three, I had to find time for each of my children so they could all feel loved individually. While my youngest consistently travel with me, I had to plan a separate trip for Mikael so he wouldn’t feel left out. I also invite him with me to the supermarket or even to the movies for one-on-one time.
Find Your 3
As a parent, life can sometimes get overwhelming. Just as kids need words of encouragement and guidance, so do we at times. We all need a support system because, as you may know, it takes a village. Whether that be family members, friends, or organizations, we all can make a difference when it comes to ACEs, as we also can be someone else’s trusted adult who can help them with their stability.
First, identify three resources that you can count on to help your children through difficult and not so difficult times. Here are some examples.
Family: – Have a dedicated family member you can call on when you feel overwhelmed. Don’t get to the point of no return where you say things you regret later. Take a breath and reach out to someone for help.
Friend: – Same as with a family member. Have a friend you can talk to or take a walk with.
Organization: – Enroll your kids in an after-school program so that you can have some time to decompress and where they can meet more trusted adults.
Doctor/Therapist: – Sometimes we all need a bit more help than a friend/family member can offer. Remember if you’re not well, your children won’t be either.
We Can Prevent ACEs
With a strong support system through individuals and organizations, we can help our body’s stress system reset. These safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments (or SSNREs) are essential to lifelong health and success as well as the prevention of ACEs.
Let’s protect our children’s mental health and, in turn, prevent ACEs so our children can live healthy lives.