Combating ACEs with…PCEs? How Positive Experiences Help Heal Kids with Trauma

Combating ACEs with…PCEs? How Positive Experiences Help Heal Kids with Trauma

For some parents, discussing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is therapeutic. For others, it can be intimidating. Since ACEs are linked to an increased risk of chronic disease in later life, finding out your score (or your child’s score) may be a little daunting.

Remember, though, that an increased risk does not mean you will develop a chronic disease. And a recent study found that the more Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) children have, the better protected they are against the impact of ACEs.

In a recent issue of JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that support from parents — helping your children feel safe and protected at home — is critically important. In addition, safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with at least two other supportive adults help buffer children against the impact of ACEs.

Take Christine Koh, a successful author, mother, and blogger who has five ACEs. A so-called “terrible student” in high school, she wrote in her parenting blog that safe, secure, and stable relationships with a number of teachers and other caring adults “helped me become resilient so I could thrive instead of tank as an adult.”

As Koh thought back over her turbulent teen years, she realized that those adult mentors had helped her “identify the joy” that turned off her overactive stress response – a phenomenon known as toxic stress.  Listening to a seminar on the issue at the American Academy of Pediatrics, she says, “I felt an urgent need to weep and thank them all for saving me.” In a poignant blog post on BostonMamas, she expresses her profound gratitude to eleven adults, including former high school teachers, band instructors, college professors and the “joy and positivity” of her boss in the ice cream shop where she worked in high school.  

Knowing that these kinds of positive experiences protect against ACEs gives you a roadmap of sorts for helping buffer your children against the effects of toxic stress.

The good news is that adults who report more positive childhood experiences (PCEs) are less likely to suffer from depression and or poor mental health – and are more likely to have healthy relationships, according to the JAMA Pediatrics study. Besides having the support of at least two adults outside the family, the other early experiences that researchers found made the difference were being able to talk with family members about their feelings, feeling that their families stood by them during difficult times, having a sense of belonging in high school, enjoying participating in community traditions, and feeling safe and protected by an adult in their home.

In addition, studies suggest that regular exercise, sufficient sleep, good nutrition, and mindfulness — along with play, sports, dance, time in nature, and daily “anchoring rituals” such as bedtime stories — can help protect against the damage of ACEs. Daily routines such as chores can also offer traumatized children a feeling of safety, security and competence. As one of the researchers, pediatrician Bob Sege of Tufts University, has said, “Everyone wants to feel needed…The worst thing to do would be to treat traumatized children as damaged goods.”

References

Bethell C, Jones J, Gombojav N, Linkenbach J, Sege R. Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(11):e193007. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2749336

Hembree D. Why Kids With ACEs Shouldn’t Get a Pass on Chores: An Interview with Bob Sege. Blog post on parenting and ACEs. Center for Youth Wellness, January 25, 209. https://www.stresshealth.org/how-chores-can-help-kids-with-aces/

Sege RD, Browne CH. Responding to ACEs with HOPE: Outcomes from Positive Experiences. Academic Pediatrics. 2017;17:S79–S85. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28865664

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