|Last weekend I did some reading about Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs and I can’t quit thinking about it, so I’m going to do what I always do… write to you about it!
ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur during childhood ranging from abuse to neglect to household dysfunction.
When children of any age experience toxic levels of stress associated with these traumas, their little brains do not mature and grow as expected. In other words, there are bound to be developmental differences.
One of the most striking points for me during one transcript I read was this:
When we’re evaluating a child, instead of looking at “What’s wrong with you?” we should be thinking..
“What’s happened to you?”
The reality is many of our little friends in early intervention and preschool programs have lived one or more ACEs by the time we see them at age 2 or 3.
I would also add that their parents have lived through them too.
Perhaps you’re that parent. Instead of reading this information and feeling guilty and blaming yourself, I would encourage you to give yourself grace. Loads of grace. Be kind to yourself and use that new question for you. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with me?” ask, “What’s happened to me?” (More about letting go of parental guilt later this week…)
Take a look at this list of adverse childhood events below and think about the children on your caseload or your own child. Have they experienced any of these issues within their homes…
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- A parent with mental illness
- Parental abandonment through divorce, separation, or incarceration
- Parents with substance abuse issues
- Violence against their mother
One thing that’s also clear from the research is the impact that positive protectors have on children who have lived through adverse childhood experiences. Here’s a list with those factors:
- Close relationships with competent caregivers or other caring adults
- Parent resilience
- Caregiver knowledge and application of positive parenting skills
- Identifying and cultivating a sense of purpose (faith, culture, identity)
- Individual developmental competencies such as problem solving skills and self–regulation
- Children’s social and emotional health
- Social connections
- Families where caregivers meet the need for food, shelter, and basic health services
- Concrete support for parents and families
- Communities and social systems that support health and development
The first protective factor on this list is establishing warm, close relationships with adults who care about you.
Certainly, as therapists, that’s one of our main unwritten goals – to develop a nurturing relationship with every child we treat. Even as more state EI programs push for a consultative or coaching model of service delivery focusing less on direct contact with the child, I believe that we should still aim to cultivate positive, caring connections with each of our “little friends.”
Beyond that, we should also do everything we can to help mothers and fathers develop and maintain strong, loving attachments with their own children.
From my own work with families, I know that we as direct service providers can make a real difference (and stay within our scope of practice and area of expertise!) by teaching parents how to develop those connections with their own child through language.
Improving a child’s ability to communicate is a wonderful protective strategy for both parents and children.
Due to developmental differences, many of the children we treat do not have skills that enable them to fully participate in social interactions with their parents. Certainly, many children with language delays already have a strong, healthy attachment to their parents, but when it’s not there, we should prioritize goals like improving social interaction skills by teaching specific skills like eye contact, joint attention, early language comprehension, and playing together.
When these kinds of social skills have been weak in toddlers with language delays, parents immediately begin to recognize improvements, even if their child isn’t talking yet.
I still get teary -eyed every time I see a child light up as his mom plays his favorite social game with him.
I beam when a toddler demonstrates that he understands what more words mean and begins to follow directions like a champ!
I delight when a toddler who has been very isolated and passive begins to “boss” his mom around with a point and a grunt. (Words come later…)
We get to witness these little miracles everyday!
And it’s through the development of communication skills as we focus on establishing connections.
I hope this inspires you to go help the families you serve build strong, powerful attachments to each other and to you.
We certainly will continue to teach their kids to talk, but what might be most important is helping them establish connections as protection against all the things that may be happening to them and their family.
With love –