Parenting with ACEs 7 Tips on Parenting with ACEs
Perhaps you went through some hard times as a child you don’t much like to recall. Maybe discipline meant getting hit at home or school. Maybe one of your parents drank too much, verbally abused you or struggled with opioids, meth or cocaine addiction. These types of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, can cause toxic stress and put people at higher risk for heart disease, depression, and other chronic illnesses in later life.
If you were fortunate, maybe something good and positive in your life helped buffer the impact of all that stress. Did you have a friend, family member, teacher or counselor who served as a trusted confidant and source of love and support? Do you have a strong network of friends or family now? Do you eat well, exercise and get a good night’s sleep? These kind of positive forces – called “protective factors” by researchers — can help reduce the effect of ACEs.
With such protection, you may find that it’s easy to be a calm, empathetic and effective parent even if your own childhood was difficult and traumatic. But even with this help, you may find that your past has left you with an outsize response to stress – one that can sometimes undermine your relationships and your parenting.
That’s why it’s so important to learn more about your own ACEs. Take the standard 10-question ACEs quiz that looks at different types of abuse, neglect, violence, and other signs of childhood adversity (or a more in-depth ACEs screen that looks at things like neighborhood racism and violence). Talk over what you learn with your healthcare provider.
Making the connection between childhood trauma and relationship problems can be a challenge, but it can also help you on a path toward healing. Once you understand the possible impacts of your own childhood trauma, you can start taking science-based steps to undo the harm – for you and your children.
Parenting with ACEs
Parents with ACEs may find it harder to stay calm in situations that don’t faze other parents. Why? Here’s what the science has to say about it:
- Your body’s stress response is designed to help you survive. When you sense danger or any kind of threat, your body’s natural reaction is to increase blood pressure and heart rate so you have the energy to run or fight back.
- Another reaction is to freeze and shut down. In past millennia, this may have occurred when someone realized he could neither defeat a terrifying animal or opponent or even safely get away.
- These reactions are your body’s way of trying to keep you safe. When used from time to time, these stress responses work well.
- When you experience constant stress during childhood, however, your body may learn to respond to small problems as if they were big ones. This could be why little things, even a toddler’s tantrum or a glass of spilled milk, can feel overwhelming.
This kind of response to stress can also explain why you may be overly sensitive to threats or challenges. You may sometimes feel anxious, threatened and hyper-vigilant even when in a safe and calm place. When you’re only a little stressed, you may feel alert, aware, and able to cope well. But when you become too stressed, you may feel panicked and anxious. You may also feel numb, exhausted, or emotionally drained.
Parenting can easily trigger this stress response because it’s such a demanding job.
You may experience feelings of stress overload with your kids, such as:
- difficulty calming down
- poor judgment
- a quicker-than-normal temper and feelings of impatience
- difficulty thinking logically
- a limited ability to “read” others and judge the needs of your children
- difficulty modeling good skills and behavior for your children
Parents who suffered severe emotional distress in childhood are also more likely to have children who miss developmental milestones or experience behavioral or mental illnesses.
This doesn’t mean that your children will necessarily suffer if you had a rough childhood. Support from compassionate adults like you can help stop the cycle.
7 Tips on Parenting with ACEs
Once you understand whether you’ve been harmed by childhood trauma, you can start taking steps to undo it – and perhaps try some new approaches with your children. Here is some science-based advice:
- Realize it’s not your fault. As experts on trauma have pointed out, “It’s not about what is wrong with you; it’s about what happened to you.”
- Take care of yourself. You need some trusted confidants to share your joys and fears. Try to cultivate stronger networks with your friends and family, as well as other people in your community. Don’t feel guilty about indulging yourself in moments just for you – enjoying that cup of coffee for an extra five minutes or a phone call with a friend.
- Stressed out? Take some deep breaths. Stopping what you’re doing for a few minutes to breathe can calm your body and ease your stress response. Encourage your kids to breathe deeply or even join you in a few minutes of mindful meditation. If you find you’re continually on the verge of a meltdown, consider seeing a mental health professional for help.
- Build in some rituals. Cooking and eating together, playing board games, taking a walk around the neighborhood, reading to your kids at bedtime, even sorting clothes together – all these “anchoring” rituals can help create closer, more loving relationships with your children, according to Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a teen, child, and family psychologist licensed in Connecticut and New York. Participating in community traditions that build a sense of belonging is also invaluable, according to ACEs expert Dr. Robert Sege of Massachusetts.
- Give your child more undivided attention. Start by putting away your smartphone when you talk with your kids – or when you’re interacting with your baby. Scientists have found that babies develop back-and-forth “conversations” without language by the time they’re 11 months old, but they need to know that you’re listening. Talking with an attentive parent helps babies develop the brain circuitry they need to grow and develop.
- Try some calming bubbles. If your kids are getting out of control, change the dynamic by blowing soap bubbles together. Try blowing a string of bubbles (or one giant bubble) via “low and slow” breathing – this helps trigger the nervous system’s “rest and digest” response. This will lower your stress if practiced regularly. Plus, it’s big fun.