Over the past couple of months we’ve been discussing stress health and how we can recognize toxic stress in our children. I’ve briefly touched on ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), but we haven’t talked much about parenting through your own Adverse Childhood Experiences. The toxic stress we experienced when we were younger affects us into adulthood and colors how we interact with others. I’ve partnered with StressHealth.org to bring you some tips to parent through your own ACEs.
Are you wondering if you have been affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences? Here are a few experiences that could contribute to your own childhood toxic stress:
- Getting hit at home or school.
- Parents who drank too much, struggled with opioids, meth or cocaine addiction
- Verbal abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Physical needs weren’t taken care of
- The loss of a parent or loved one
- Mental illness of a family member or parent
- A parent in prison
Take the ACEs quiz to see if you’re at risk of toxic stress and discuss the results with your healthcare provider. Perhaps you had a rough upbringing, but you’ve had a great support system and good health. The effects of stress may be limited in that case. To combat all the stress, we need the influence of positive forces – called “protective factors,” which include:
- A friend, family member, teacher or counselor who served as a trusted confidant and source of love and support
- A strong network of friends or family
- Eating well, exercising and getting a good night’s sleep
Now let’s discuss parenting through your ACEs. Parents and adults who experienced traumatic events and toxic stress during their childhood may find it more difficult to stay calm when it comes to parenting. Our bodies are designed for fight or flight, and when we’ve had to use those senses a lot, it can really affect the way we handle stressful situations when it comes to our children. Things that seem small or trivial to some adults may look and feel like a big deal to those with ACEs.
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.
Parenting is a demanding job that can easily trigger your stress responses. 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
It’s important to know and understand yourself and why you react the way you do. Once you understand if you’ve been harmed by childhood ACEs, you can start taking steps to heal from them. Here are 7 tips for parenting through ACEs:
- 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.”
- Seek out 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.
- Take care of yourself. 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.
Create family rituals. As the Stress Health site explains, cooking and eating together, playing board games, taking a walk around the neighborhood, reading to your kids at bedtime, even sorting clothes together; 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.
The biggest thing I can say is to become aware and analyze whether or not you are suffering from ACEs. Then take action to overcome it. We can help by not perpetuating these ACEs with our own children.