This post is done in partnership with Stress Health, an initiative of the Center for Youth
Wellness, but all opinions are my own.
When you think of stress, you automatically think of adulthood, right? We think that just because
we are adults and parents, we are the only ones who feel and experience the stresses of
everyday life. WRONG! Childhood “toxic stress” is a thing. Another term for it is ACEs, which
means Adverse Childhood Experiences. They are very common, and most Americans have at
least one. ACEs can happen to anyone and may have lasting effects on health.
What causes childhood toxic stress?
A child who experiences ACEs such as abuse, neglect, and other major stressors such as
divorce, a family member’s substance abuse, or witnessing violence in the home may have toxic
stress. Abuse is defined as physical, emotional or sexual. Neglect is defined as physical or
emotional. Household dysfunctions that qualify as ACEs include mental illness, incarcerated
relatives, seeing one’s own mother being treated violently, substance abuse and even divorce.
Other kinds of difficulty, including community violence, bullying, and poverty, can also lead to
health issues without the right support.
Children have both good and bad experiences, and both can affect their health. Science shows
that negative experiences can have long-term effects on children’s brains and bodies. Stress
from ACEs is different than the everyday stress that all children experience.
Do you have any personal experiences with ACEs?
My oldest daughter does and still deals with them at the age of 13. She and I were both
physically and emotionally abused by her biological father during my relationship with him. She
also had to deal with his substance abuse problem, as did I. Although she was only 3 when I
finally left that toxic relationship, she still remembers bits and pieces of things, and it haunts her
till this day. Due to these traumatic events, she deals with the demons of the past every single
day. She does get the mental health support she needs. She also deals with being bullied in
school daily and has been bullied since elementary school. None of this is fair to her. I tell her to
tell someone when it happens. If she’s feeling down, I make it a point to let her know that I am
there for her should she need someone to talk too.
How can a child heal from ACEs?
Making the connection between childhood trauma and adult illnesses and relationship problems
can be challenging, but it can be tremendously freeing. It also enables you to start the healing
process. 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.”
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. She may not develop the needed brain circuitry if her
brain isn’t stimulated by talking with an attentive parent, so be sure your phone doesn’t come
between you and our child.
Consider taking a parenting class, especially if you often find yourself yelling or acting in ways
you’d rather not. A recent study found some parenting programs especially effective in reducing
drug use, aggression, and anxiety in the teen years. “Of course, it’s important to realize that
when it comes to parenting, not one size fits all,” child and teen psychologist Barbara Greenberg
of Connecticut has told Stress Health. “The class has to make sense for your parenting style
and temperament. If the class doesn’t feel right for you, try a different one.”
How can I support a child who has ACEs?
Research shows that the right kind of support and care can mitigate the impact of toxic stress in
children and help them bounce back. There are ways parents can support a healthy stress
response: sleep, nutrition, exercise, mental health, mindfulness, and healthy relationships.
Together, all of these important things can help turn the stress response down and can reduce
the potential negative effects of ACEs.
- Supportive relationships
- Good nutrition
- Mental health
And remember: all the positive experiences you create for your children are helping build
resilience and helping them heal.
Is there a test I can take to find out what my ACEs are?
Yes, there is. Right here: ACEs Test.
I took the test myself, and my score was 2. I had my oldest daughter take it, and she ended up
with a score of 5.
Although there is a test available, it’s recommended that individuals speak to their
physician/primary care provider about ACEs-related concerns and discuss how to integrate the
most promising healing practices for toxic stress into their self-care and family care. Your
medical provider may have referral recommendations and/or treatment options available.
Individuals experiencing urgent medical or psychiatric concerns should call 911 or their local
emergency service agency for immediate assistance.
You may not think your child is experiencing stress of any kind but you’d be surprised. I thought
after leaving my previous relationship that it was I who felt the brunt of everything. Nope. Not by
a long shot. Little did I know the little girl who was by my side was carrying deep, dark memories
of her own from that time in her life. Instead of letting it all out, she stayed quiet for years. Talk
to your kids. Observe them whenever you can. Actions can speak much louder than words.