Beating Back-to-School Worries

When vaccines were approved to counteract the devastating effects of the global pandemic, many felt tremendous relief at the thought of life returning to a semblance of normality. But with the surging Delta variant now at play, especially in Florida, we are once again donning masks and adapting to mandates. There is no doubt that some of these issues are polarizing, but we can choose to look beyond political disagreements and focus on our children, find consensus to meet their mental health needs during this historically challenging time.

This is an unprecedentedly confusing season for all of us — even more so for children who may not fully understand the constant changes we are all facing. As our little ones return to school, they may encounter different rules there than at the local mall, for example. What presents a danger and what doesn’t in the face of an invisible, indiscriminate virus?

A good place to start is to ensure your children understand as much as they can about the virus and the choices your family (and their school) are making. Most schools are doing their best to communicate their policies to teachers and parents, and enforce them for everybody’s safety. You can do your part by helping your child understand, in an age-appropriate way, what we know about the virus and why we are changing our behavior to protect the health of ourselves and others. There are great articles for older kids and, since most children love watching animation, you can augment your conversation with countless well-produced YouTube videos for all ages on understanding the virus, how vaccines work, why we are wearing masks, and how to manage worries about Covid-19.

Talk About the Science and Their Safety

Our understanding of the science of the virus is constantly evolving based on new data, and so the messages we are receiving from experts and authority figures are changing, too. This is confusing and frustrating for adults, so imagine how confounded our children must be! Keep the lines of communication open and make the topic approachable and open to discussion.

In general, these tips are helpful:

  • Communicate often, especially when mandates/rules change.
  • Explain that scientists and researchers are learning more about the virus every day. Reinforce that, as we learn more and understand the virus better, we need to change our behaviors based on the best knowledge we have at the time.
  • Because change can be scary, explain to children that we make behavioral changes (like wearing a mask again) because we know more now. We are always adapting so we can be as strong as possible in our fight against the virus.
  • Of course, in order to do this, we must follow the latest developments from reputable sources. These include national agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the National Institutes for Health. You can rely on scientific research published in scientific journals like The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association which are all highly reputable and, most importantly, peer-reviewed and validated.
  • On the flipside, avoid sharing fearmongering, unsubstantiated rumors and stories that spread like wildfire on social media platforms. Encourage older children to use their common sense thinking to evaluate the truth of rumors they hear. You can even help them cross-reference and check these stories against the valid data provided by long-standing and distinguished organizations.
  • Children look to the trusted adults in their lives to model behavior that they then tend to adopt themselves. This means if you remain calm, measured in your responses, and reasonable, your children are more likely to feel safe and display those same traits.
  • Of course, more anxious children may need more time to accept and adapt to change and may require more of your time and attention during this time.

Why Change is Hard for Children

Change is difficult for children. Transitions of any kind require quite a lot of mental processing skills – skills that children may not have fully developed yet, so patience is required. Returning to school represents an enormous change for children, many of whom have spent more than a year being home schooled. It may feel daunting, even for the most self-confident child. We offer an online training on “Implementing Effective Transitions for Children” that is accompanied by a handy, printable tip sheet on the subject.

Of course, some situations unique to being back in school may arise again after lying dormant during the pandemic. Issues like bullying, difficulties socializing or making friends, having to share with others, focusing on work, and simply taking turns may all need to be handled anew by teachers and parents.

There are ways you can make back-to-school better, however, even for children who have become accustomed to having parents close by at all times during the pandemic.

Acknowledge Anxiety:
Feeling anxious or afraid is normal and okay – everybody feels these emotions from time to time. Teach your child that we can name and manage our emotions. Remind them that they have been afraid before and will likely be afraid again but they can control their responses to fear. This will help lower anxiety by providing perspective. You can remind them: “Remember when you were afraid of the swimming pool? But you learned how to swim and now you’re like a little fish.” You can work with your child to name the exact emotion they are feeling; sometimes just naming an emotion (“I am feeling fear because this is a new situation for me.”) helps diminish its hold. Talking things through is essential. As an adult, you have a lifetime of wisdom and experience to draw on and share with your child. For very anxious children, teaching mindfulness and meditation techniques is very helpful. Do this before your child finds his or herself anxious or dysregulated. You can also learn some breathing techniques and other calming behaviors on our website.

Build Independence:
Teaching your children that they are strong and capable on their own is key. You can do this by giving them small, age-appropriate tasks and reinforcing the positive behavior when they succeed. You can say things like:

  • “You were able to set the table all on your own.”
  • “You worked that whole puzzle out by yourself.”
  • “You kept trying even when it was hard.”

Building a track record of succeeding in increasingly more independent tasks helps reinforce resilience.

Establish Routines:
During a year-and-a-half when nothing has felt normal, many useful routines fell by the wayside. Children feel safe and secure when clear boundaries are established and this includes strong routines. Setting up a before school, after school, and evening routine will help your children know what to expect when other parts of their lives feel uncertain and insecure. Combine things they like to do (like hearing a story) as an incentive to do things they may not like but need to complete (like brushing their teeth).

Do Practice Runs:
When things are new, you can lessen anxiety by helping children know what to expect. Drive past their new school or after-school sports facility; show them where exactly they will be going each day. Many schools are focusing on being especially welcoming to new students this year. Encourage your child to take part in any events or activities that allow for meet-and-greet situations with others who are also new.

Build Excitement:
Focus on what’s good. Are they making new friends? Is there one teacher they are finding especially interesting or fun? What is new this year that they haven’t done before? Looking for bright spots is a great antidote to negative or anxious thinking.

Make the Most of Masks:
Masks are undoubtedly a barrier to human communication and closeness. Many of us find it challenging to simply let others know we are smiling, for example, when we are wearing a mask. We offer an online training to help parents, teachers, and caregivers to build resilience and manage children’s anxiety entitled: “Showing Affection During Covid-19.”

As the inevitable ups and downs of this return-to-school period arrive, however, the most important thing to remember is that children are like sponges, absorbing the attitudes, opinions, and atmosphere around them. If you choose to model behaviors that are calm, positive, supportive, and reassuring, you will see that your child will call on their innate resilience, as well as the life skills you have taught them, and find a way to thrive.

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ACEs and Attachment: Why Connection Means Everything

Anyone who has ever looked into the intense stare of a newborn baby knows that human beings, from infancy, seek connection. The bond between a baby and its caregivers (usually mom and dad) is one of the strongest of all relationships. It’s the relationship on which all future interactions with others will be based. We are social creatures and much of our communication is nonverbal. This means we rely on body language, gestures, tone of voice, and other subtle clues in addition to the actual words we use to convey the meaning of what we're saying. Babies are attuned to all these forms of communication long before they have the capacity to speak.

From the moment a child is born—in fact long before then, in vitro—they are connecting with their primary caregivers and siblings. Scientific research shows that the degree of connection a child experiences in the first crucial years of life sets them up for success or challenges for the rest of their lives. Let's explore why attachment is so important and why failure to attach as a result of childhood adversity can become a barrier to lifelong health and well-being.

Types of Attachment

Infant and early childhood attachment can be divided into four types:

  1. Secure
    A child feels secure when their needs are met by their caregivers, consistently and lovingly. A child with secure attachment learns that they are important and that adults can be relied upon and trusted.
  2. Insecure
    A child who experiences poor attachment feels insecure and unsafe in their environment. They learn that their needs are not met consistently, and they may become either anxious/resistant or anxious/avoidant types.
  3. Disorganized
    When the attachment is inconsistent (meaning that sometimes the child's needs are met and they are comforted and sometimes they are ignored and become frightened) attachment feels unreliable. The child feels fearful and mistrustful and may show several responses from freezing in the presence of their caregivers to desperately clinging to them.
  4. Disrupted
    When a child does not have a consistent primary caregiver, attachment is especially unreliable. This can occur when children are abandoned, neglected, or shuttled between different parents/caregivers and between a variety of homes without stable relationships.

You can learn more about the different attachment styles here.

Clearly, secure attachment offers a child the best opportunity for a healthy start in life.
Secure attachment offers three major benefits:

  • It gives the child a solid sense of security
  • It helps a child learn to regulate their emotions, experience happiness, and self-calm
  • Offers a good, safe “base camp” from which to explore the world

Sadly, the opposite is also true. A child who has failed to attach securely to his or her caregivers may show developmental impairment, both neurologically and behaviorally. This child may demonstrate learning difficulties and find it hard to form relationships with other children and adults. These issues may plague a child as they grow and manifest as severe issues in adulthood.

Be Aware of the Signs

What early signs can you look for that might suggest a child has had difficulty with attachment? In infants and toddlers, you may see a lack of emotional response or little interest in responding to sights, sounds, or touch. They may reject touch and avoid playing with others. They may find it very hard to soothe themselves or calm down; they may avoid being comforted.

Slightly older children, those of preschool age or in kindergarten, for example, may not wish to play with others; they may not communicate well and often have poor language skills. They may fight frequently with other children and not consider the needs of others. Attachment disorders can result in a child feeling fearful or on-guard at all times. Significantly, they often do not turn to adults for help and this reluctance to trust and bond can further burden the caregiver/child relationship.

Our manual and online training A Way of Being with Children: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Building Resilience dedicates sections to attachment and the neurosequential development of children’s brains to help you better understand the crucial need for security during the first few years of life.

Attachment and ACEs

Clearly, the negative consequences of poor attachment show up early and can last throughout the lifespan. So, where do Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and attachment intersect? When we look at the original list of 10 ACE questions first identified in studies conducted in the mid-1990s, we can identify areas of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction that contribute to childhood adversity. It is not hard to look at these situations or experiences and see how secure attachment is unlikely to happen in homes where these circumstances are present.

For example, in a home where the primary caregiver has been incarcerated and so is absent, attachment between that caregiver and their child simply cannot occur. The ACE is incarceration of a parent or caregiver, but poor attachment is the result.

For another example, in a home where severe substance abuse is prevalent, the substance abuser may well be unavailable or incapable of forming secure attachment with their child. While the ACE is substance abuse on the part of the caregiver (and possibly neglect), once again the result may well be poor attachment.

In a previous blog, we looked into the issue of Adverse Community Environments. Children being raised in neighborhoods with poor community supports, physical danger due to violence, and a lack of opportunity for their parents and caregivers are at greater risk for high ACE scores. These negative environments place a strain on adults’ ability to form attachment with their children. The environment itself, in the home and in the greater community, is simply not conducive to effective attachment.

While we cannot hope to make up all the ground children with insecure attachment have lost, the good news is that we can go a long way to providing attachment lessons and modeling for young children. The most important thing is to be aware that, sadly, many children entering kindergarten and school arrive without the benefit of having formed secure attachments at home. This one simple fact will help teachers and caregivers understand that not all children arrive ready to learn from the same starting place. Many have missed out on crucial stages of neurological development. Studies show these children may require more care, time, and personal attention but, as an adult in their life, you can provide them with the connection they need to thrive.

Cause for Hope

Even when children have missed out on vital primary caregiver attachment during the formative years, simple connection can go a long way to help them catch up developmentally. The old African proverb: it takes a village to raise a child has never been truer. Positive adult interactions can help buffer the effects of toxic stress in growing children, helping to get their development back on track. Children can benefit from time with well-balanced adults like extended family members, coaches, community leaders, and, crucially, teachers. The realities of modern life, including divorce, job insecurity, financial pressures, and the general increase in population mobility, have taken their toll on the traditional family unit. We now understand that a traditional nuclear family is not the only path to raising successful, happy children, however. Increasingly, studies show that children raised with love, affection, and caring discipline, regardless of who is doing that raising, are likely to enjoy happy outcomes. The key is the quality, patience, and love demonstrated by the caregivers -- no matter who they are. 

Why Teachers Matter Beyond Academics

The role of positive, caring adult in a child’s life is increasingly falling to teachers and those working in childcare settings. These men and women form the framework or scaffolding to build strong human beings for the next generation. Teachers often serve as an attachment figure for children; sometimes, they become real-life heroes in a child's life. The importance of this precious role cannot be overstated. Teachers are the models for many children’s first experience of a successful, calm, well-adjusted adult. By providing “secondary attachment” for children who may have missed out on some of the benefits of secure attachment, teachers can become one of the most important people in a child's life, a member of the child's extended family, and a positive example of a successful adult.

As adults, are we doing our best to compensate for poor attachment and childhood ACEs? Are we doing our very best to model well regulated, resilient behaviors? Center for Child Counseling offer lots of ways to provide positive engagement with children in your life from training workshops, to ways to play, to this educational blog series on Fighting ACEs. Let’s focus on how we interact with young minds because we may be the best example to a child who is looking to believe in people again.

Sign up now for news, events, and education about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and promoting resilience.

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive emails from: Center for Child Counseling, 8895 N. Military Trail, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, 33410. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email.

CFCC Board Member, Eddie Stephens, Honored with Prestigious Florida Bar Award

West Palm Beach, FL (June 17, 2021)Ward Damon equity partner Eddie Stephens was honored at the recent 2021 Annual Florida Bar Convention. Board-certified marital and family law attorney Eddie Stephens received the Florida Bar’s Excellence in the Promotion of Board Certification Award, recognizing his efforts to raise awareness about board certification for lawyers in Florida.

The Excellence in The Promotion of Board Certification Award recognizes excellence and creativity by a Florida Bar Board Certified lawyer or a law firm in advancing the public’s knowledge of and appreciation for legal board certification. Eddie Stephens created a monthly CLE series with board certification tips of the month which generates revenue donated to the Center for Child Counseling, Inc., as well as a program on how to pass the marital and family law board certification examination.

Eddie Stephens is a board certified attorney in Marital and Family Law who specializes in high-conflict matrimonial law.  He also leads the marital and family law department and manages community relations for the firm.  Stephens has earned the AV® Preeminent™ Peer Review Rating by Martindale-Hubbell, a professional rating indicating the highest ethical standards and professional ability, and has been selected for inclusion in Best Lawyers in America®, a peer-review publication recognizing the top 4% of attorneys in the country.  He graduated from the Leadership Palm Beach County Class of 2015, serves on its Board of Governors, and is currently Program Chair of Leadership GROW, its youth leadership program.  Stephens also serves as the Directors for Legal Education for the Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach County.  Stephens earned his B.B.A. from the University of Miami and his J.D. at Stetson University College of Law.

About Ward Damon

Ward Damon, PL is an AV-rated, multidiscipline law firm serving the legal needs of its clients and community since 1987.  Ward Damon represents businesses and individuals through legal counseling, transactional work and litigation in federal and state courts.  Attorneys support clients in a variety of practice areas including real estate, business and corporate, marital and family, labor and employment, healthcare, construction, intellectual property, wills, trusts, and estates and more.  The firm has offices in West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Jupiter and Stuart.  For more information, visit or call 561.842.3000.

Renée Layman Recognized for Leadership Excellence

CFCC’s CEO Renee Layman with LPBC’s President Vicki Chouris

On Thursday, June 3, 2021, Leadership Palm Beach County (LPBC) hosted it’s annual Leadership Celebration at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium to celebrate graduates of its Engage program and honor the recipients of its 2021 Leadership Excellence Awards. The Leadership Excellence Award was created to celebrate those alumni who reflect LPBC’s core values of connecting, collaborating, and change; individuals who have made a notable contribution to improve and impact our community.

Center for Child Counseling (CFCC) is proud to announce that CEO Renée Layman was awarded the prestigious President’s Award for leadership and community impact. This award, selected by the current president and LPBC’s Board of Directors is presented annually to a leader who embodies organizational excellence and also consistent and intensive positive influence in educating, serving, and supporting local communities. Vicki Chouris, President of the LPBC Board and CEO of the South Florida Fair selected Ms. Layman for her dedication, selflessness, and commitment to the children and families of Palm Beach County.

During her speech at the event, Ms. Layman talked about the work she has conducted since she graduated from Leadership Palm Beach County in 2010. She is not only a dedicated alumnus of the LPBC organization but her work in her capacity as CEO of CFCC has impacted the mental health and well-being of thousands of children and families.

Beyond ACEs: Working Towards Acceptance

At Center for Child Counseling, we are seriously committed to helping educate the community about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). We offer free trainings through our online learning platform, we work in schools and community centers to bolster the childcare workforce, and we even host expert panels like last month’s “Lead the Fight” virtual panel event which brought together local leaders to discuss the best opportunities for building a more trauma-informed community within specific sectors. We even release this monthly blog post as part of a researched educational series to discuss every aspect of childhood trauma and adversity.

But to focus exclusively on ACEs is to miss the full picture. If childhood adversity has potentially lifelong physical and mental health implications that can be devastating to individuals and communities, then childhood positivity, happiness, enrichment, and learning are bound to have the opposite effect – building lifelong resilience and communities that are strong and thriving.

Positive Childhood Experiences

So, let’s focus on positive childhood experiences for a while, those aspects of childhood that we all look back on with joy and credit with making us the people we are today. Childhood positivity is the antidote to ACEs. If we can build positive childhoods for our children where they feel secure, valued, and understood, we can surely ensure a much brighter planet for everyone.

But where does positivity start? It begins, of course, long before a baby is even born with prenatal care, but really, it begins before that with the good mental health and social support of both parents. Once a baby is born, the first few years of life are especially crucial. Very young infants and children are exposed to very little else besides their immediate parents and caregivers. They interact with the world through these people and the connections and attachment they build within these relationships. So how can we make these first interactions as positive as possible? It all starts with acceptance. In fact, all successful and healthy human relationships include strong components of acceptance. Nobody likes to feel judged. Everybody wants to be seen and known and loved for exactly who they are.

This is, however, easier said than done. Reaching a state of acceptance can sometimes be a lifelong journey. Very few parents end up with their dream child who is everything they imagined, never lets them down, and never puts a foot wrong. How could we expect that from a little, growing human being? Just as we delight in a child’s little triumphs and achievements like their first steps or words, so we inevitably see their little flaws, too – perhaps the first signs of stubbornness or a bad temper. Like all humans, a child is a complex combination of factors, personality traits, quirks, tendencies, and eccentricities. But the beginning of childhood positivity comes when a child feels that they are truly loved and accepted for who they are by the most important people in their lives – their parents, caregivers, and/or siblings.

Let’s look at ways we can work towards acceptance as the foundation of positive childhood experiences.

Focus on Being a Mindful Parent

The key to having a great relationship with your child is to really know them. Being connected to your child and in tune with their feelings helps them feel accepted and valued. Mindful parents bring awareness to interactions with their children, pulling lessons from situations to help the child better understand the world around them. Here are some ways you can show a child you want to know them for who they really are:

  1. Practice Active Listening: Really focus on what your child is saying and the words they choose to use. A lot of communication is non-verbal, so pay attention to gestures and facial expressions, too. Try to look your child in the eye or go down to their level to show they have your full attention. This type of focused listening helps you understand your child better and shows them that their needs matter to you.
  2. Communicate by Reflecting Back: Mirror back what a child tells you. Don’t judge; just repeat back what you hear them saying. For example, “You feel sad and worried because your puppy is sick.” This helps a child identify their emotions and name them. It helps build awareness of their own behaviors and reactions and lets them know you are understanding them.
  3. Help by Labeling Emotions: Often, children lack the vocabulary to name their emotions and so suffer from frustration. Hep you child become aware of different emotions by naming them. You can also connect an emotion with a behavior, so help a child make better choices. For example, “I know you are angry because your face is red and you’re yelling.”
  4. Demonstrate Self-Regulation: The best parents lead by example. They show their children techniques they use to calm down or practice self-control (this is called self-regulation). Maybe you count to ten slowly, or do breathing exercises, or choose to laugh and make a silly joke and laugh to diffuse tension. Your child learns from you.
  5. Show Empathy and Compassion: Showing empathy towards your child when they are upset shows them that you love them despite the situation and demonstrates your acceptance of them despite their behavior. Kindness goes a long way in helping a child feel accepted.

Understand Where Your Child is Developmentally

Sometimes, a parent or caregiver’s frustration with a child stems from a misunderstanding of the ages and stages of child development. For example, you may have heard of the “terrible twos” and even the “terrible threes” when children can be particularly exasperating because of their seeming defiance and love of the word: “No!” You may have found it hard to accept your child’s behavior at this stage, but when you understand that this is the very specific period of development when children are learning to understand their sense of self, it makes more sense that they are testing their autonomy and testing you. Often, understanding where your child is developmentally will help you avoid feeling frustrated with them. In our manual “A Way of Being with Children: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Building Resilience”, we dedicate an entire section to childhood development and a child’s developing brain, so that you can fully understand where your child is at each age.

Examine Yourself and Your Child

There may be a tendency to imagine your child as a reflection of you. For biological moms, this is most natural of all since the baby grew directly inside their body and was a part of them. But it’s valuable to examine how your child is different from you as well as how they are the same. The more you look at the differences your child displays when developing their own fully formed personality, the more you’ll be able to appreciate that they are unique individuals and that they are going to experience their own joys and struggles in life that will have very little to do with your journey. Noticing and appreciating differences is the first step in accepting your child as an individual.

Free Your Child From Your Dreams

Most parents have some preconceived notions about what their child will be like and what they will achieve in life. This is only natural and probably stems from great intentions. Who wouldn’t want a child to achieve great things in their career? Who wouldn’t want their child to experience the independence and excitement of going to college? But the truth is that many of your dreams for your children may not come true. Assumptions you’ve made about the choices they’ll make are likely wrong. College may not be right for your child. They may choose to pursue other interests. This can be particularly painful for parents who have very set ideas for the children, such as taking over a family business or following in the family’s religion. But the secret to maintaining a strong relationship with your child is accepting that they may not always do what you believe to be best for them. They are their own people and, like you, are going to make both good and bad choices in their lives. You cannot save them from bad choices or their consequences. But you can accept them and prepare them. You can only support them, guide them, and give them the best possible foundation for success by teaching them sound judgment and common sense.

Accept Yourself

Many of us come to self-acceptance later in life. As we mature and grow wiser, we realize that life may not turn out exactly as we planned. We may have failed at something very important to us. We may not have fulfilled all our dreams. We slowly learn to feel okay about that and make peace with ourselves. Reaching self-acceptance is a large part of accepting others. When we’re critical of others (in other words judgmental), it’s often because we feel they are demonstrating negative traits or behaviors that we fear we, too, may be prone to. So, when you are being critical of your child, is it most often during times when you feeling bad about yourself? In other words, are you taking out your lack of self-acceptance on your child because you’re trying to protect them from your own flaws and failings that you perhaps see mirrored in them?

If you want to work on building a better relationship with your children, we encourage you to explore our free trainings on a variety of topics relevant to parents and caregivers. We also offer an array of free resources from ways to play more creatively with your children to ways to help children through a crisis or disaster. Our world-class manual on understanding and enjoying children more fully entitled “A Way of Being With Children: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Building Resilience” is available in print format or as a series of online trainings. We know it will help you build the foundation for a more playful, healthful, and hopeful family life.

Sign up now for news, events, and education about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and promoting resilience.

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive emails from: Center for Child Counseling, 8895 N. Military Trail, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, 33410. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email.

A Strengths-Based Approach Brings HOPE to ACEs

The color green, and indeed the word ‘green’, has come to mean many things to many people. The concept of planet-friendly packaging or renewable energy might spring to mind first. Green is also the color of greed and money. Green is a symbol of Ireland. For Shakespeare lovers, green is the color of the ‘green-eyed monster’ called jealousy. But for those of us who work in mental health, green is the symbol of May — Mental Health Awareness Month. We don our green shirts and all month long we communicate about the need to focus on our individual and communal mental health.

Mental Health and the Human Need for Connection

The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to an issue that we have long known, children’s mental health is fragile and needs to be protected. Educating the community and key stakeholders about the concept of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) is all about protecting the future mental health of adults by caring for them when they are children, by giving them the skills they need to build resilience, and by working as hard as we possibly can to prevent the kind of personal and community adversity that has lifelong physical mental health application implications.

Covid-19 has taken its toll on everybody’s mental health. The results of the latest poll presented at the American Psychiatric Association 2021 Annual Meeting show that 43% of adults said the pandemic has had a serious impact on their mental health, up from 37% in 2020. Younger adults are more likely to report serious mental health effects. This pandemic is a once-in-a-century global event that even adults struggle to process and understand. How much harder must it be for little minds that have not yet developed enough to understand complex issues and also lack the perspective on which most mature adult wisdom is based. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) has focused on connection and a message of “you are not alone” for 2021’s Mental Health Awareness Month. You can download a “Tools 2 Thrive” toolkit from Mental Health America’s website. People are undoubtedly experiencing isolation and disconnectedness as a result of the pandemic. Countless thousands do not have the support they need to cope with the loneliness, fear, loss, and grief that Covid-19 has brought into all our lives. It may seem like a dark time and it is, but there are some encouraging and uplifting results that have come from the pandemic, too.

A Strengths-Based Approach

ACE studies conducted since the 1990s have, by their nature, focused on adversity. The original studies largely overlooked (or were not focused on) protective factors. The yin and yang theory of life (also called the ‘unity of opposites’ theory) suggests that everything in the universe has its opposite, so then adversity must have its opposite, too — in positivity or thriving. In recent times, there has been a strong shift in mental health towards focusing on strengths and on building resilience. This is not some Pollyanna approach to a dire situation, but a scientifically based and research grounded ideology.

It is interesting to note that working from a strengths-based approach is naturally anti-racist, pro individual, and pro equity. If we base all our interactions on the understanding that the struggles families face are unequal, we begin to see their individual struggles more realistically.

We should acknowledge that health outcomes (including mental health ones) are:

  • largely the result of entrenched systemic inadequacies
  • the natural consequence of an unequal investment in people’s future opportunities
  • built on an agenda based on maintaining an equitable status quo

Once we see this, we begin to meet people where they are, and see them for who they truly are. We can then look to see what strengths are in place in their lives that are helping them and promoting resilience, and what attitudes and systems are in their way. A strength-based approach encourages people to focus on what they have and what resources are working for them rather than what they have lost or all the adversity in their lives.

Acknowledge the Bad; Promote the Good

This is not to say that negative circumstances and experiences should be ignored or not acknowledged, but rather that we can all build on what is good in ourselves and in our world. The more we focus on what is working and what strengthens and build us up, the more resilience we are likely to engender in ourselves and our children. Since resilience is the ability to overcome obstacles and thrive, its very definition accepts that times are hard and that adversity is an inherent part of being a human being. If adversity is a given, it is no longer something that is foreign, overwhelming, or to be feared. Adversity is a part of life that can be overcome. No doubt, some people’s adversity and some children’s traumatic experiences are far worse than others. Working in the field of mental health, we at Center for Child Counseling understand this fully. But it is also undeniable that talking about strength, positivity, self-determination, and personal empowerment facilitates positive change while focusing on the bad only seems to perpetuate more negativity.

Covid-19 changed the world. Naturally, the media has focused on some of the most extreme negative outcomes of this global crisis. Financial hardship, economic crisis, loss of life, an increase in substance abuse and domestic violence, and spiraling mental health issues are all consequences of the global pandemic and its associated lockdowns. So, you might be surprised to learn that there have been some very positive side effects of the crisis, too.

The Surprising Upside

In many cases, community engagement has actually increased. People have taken more notice of their neighbors. In many cases, people report an increase in feelings of compassion and empathy for others. A slower pace and a greater focus on home neighborhoods (due to many people working from home all day), has resulted in opportunity to get to know neighbors (albeit in masks while social distancing). In many homes, families have turned their focus back on one another, finding more time for each other, focusing more on the needs of their children, and finally achieving the goal of eating more family meals together, which studies indicate helps to build closeness and feelings of nurturing. People connected more using phone, text, or video chat, often with people they hadn’t spoken to in years. Parents spoke to their children more, explaining the situation, answering questions, and simply expression compassion and love. It’s exactly these kinds of positive childhood experiences that can set children up for a future of success and happiness. Isn’t it ironic that it took a global health crisis for us to consider what being healthy really means for our children?

HOPE is the Word…and the Attitude!

It seems fair to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in HOPE – Healthy Outcomes from Positive Experiences. The HOPE organization promotes a fresh way of seeing and talking about experiences which is focused not only on adversity but rather on children’s health, resilience, and positive growth so that they can become successful adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released its first in a series of reports called “Snapshots” after polling 3,000+ parents about their experiences during the pandemic. Surprisingly, while many of the findings were concerning, most people reported a deepening relationship with their children despite the stress and tension they were experiencing. The survey showed that families are more resilient and adaptable than we might have expected, so while we often focus on abuse, neglect, and dysfunction when discussing ACEs, the importance of employing a strengths-based approach when dealing with children and families is certainly being highlighted.

Strengthening All Influencers

Think of a child as existing in a series of concentric circles. The circle most immediately surrounding the child is made up of their family (parents and/or caregivers and siblings). It makes sense therefore to focus on the strengths of the entire family unit if we intend to strengthen the child. This is why we offer child, filial, and dyadic family therapy.

The next circle might be people the child encounters consistently, people like teachers coaches, neighbors, mentors, religious leaders, and extended family member. This is the circle described by the common African saying: "It takes a village to raise a child". These are the people who influence the child on a regular or even daily basis. It makes sense therefore to strengthen the understanding of people working in these fields as to childhood development and the need to be positive buffers against childhood adversity. This is why it makes sense for us to help educate teachers and other childcare professionals in areas like ACEs and healthy childhood development.

The next circle is the wider community. These people may not influence the child directly but they certainly have an influence on the atmosphere and environment in which the child is being raised. These people might include healthcare workers, public servants, law-enforcement officers, those in the court system, etc. How positive or negative this community circle is can deeply affect a child’s future. You can learn more about this in our blog on Adverse and Positive Community Environments. This is why we work to train these specific sectors in the community with targeted, relevant educational tools aimed at their unique needs.

The outermost circle is the systems circle or the (‘world-at-large’ circle). This is the atmosphere of the times in which the child is living. It is not embodied by individual people but rather by systems-level influences. Is the child being race raised in an atmosphere of toxic racism or systemic violence? Many now suggest that racism itself is an ACE. This is why we advocate passionately for children's rights within wider systems.

If we can begin to positively affect every one of these circles through education, community action, advocacy, and social improvement programs we are echoing positivity inwards towards the individual child at the center of all the circles.

Our Role

As a key child and family counseling agency in Florida, one of Center for Child Counseling’s most important roles is to ensure that people understand ACEs and their potential to cause lifelong mental and physical health issues. Our goal is to create trauma-aware adults who recognize and stop childhood trauma and abuse in its tracks, ensuring children grow healthy in mind and body.

Our therapists work with families affected by adversity and trauma every day; helping children heal if the focus of all our work. But we very much embrace a strengths-focused approach in our work to build trauma-informed communities. All our staff undergoes extensive training in ACEs education and recently we’ve taken strengths training based on Gallup’s Clifton Strengths program at the leadership level and are working on cascading the learning to every staff member during the remainder of 2021. We also employ a TIEL (Trauma-Informed Equity Lens) approach to our work and our communications. We want to ensure we’re bringing our best strengths to this fight, but everyone can play a part.

What You Can Do Now

Focus on interacting with the people you encounter, especially children, with empathy and concentrate on seeing them as unique individuals. Acceptance is key to your relationship with any child and to all successful relationships in life. You can learn more about building acceptance in our educational material “A Way of Being with Children: A Trauma Informed Approach to Building Resilience” which is a available in manual form and as an online training.

Wisdom tells us that we cannot control certain circumstances in our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, was beyond anybody's control or prediction. However, we can control the way we respond to these situations. In fact, that’s sometimes all we can do. If we choose to respond with perspective, positivity, and even humor (where possible), we are coming from a place of resilience, and we can feel secure in the knowledge that we are providing our children with lessons that are making them stronger for life.

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Building Family Resilience in Troubled Times

Maintaining healthy human relationships takes time and attention, even under the best of circumstances. For most of us, relationships require work. We invest in them whether they are romantic attachments, friendships, or familial connections. But maintaining strong relationships in times of intense stress is far more challenging. Consider the stressful circumstances that most of us have lived through for the past year. While we have undoubtedly been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting emotional fallout and other unexpected and unintended consequences are going to be part of the so-called “echo pandemic” for years and possibly decades to come.

Let’s consider some of the circumstances we as individuals and families have faced and the impact they might have had on our children:

Since the pandemic started, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 550,000 people have lost their lives to the COVID-19 virus, making it the third leading cause of death in 2020 behind heart disease and cancer. This has undoubtedly had a tremendous impact of millions of people, including children who are likely losing loved ones for the first time in their lives at an alarming rate.

Aside from the loss of life, children have lost rites of passage like starting a new school, attending dances and big games, being celebrated at graduation ceremonies, etc. Children may have lost something even more precious than landmark events, however. Many have lost their sense of security as their homes have been shaken by uncertainty and financial hardship. COVID-19 has hit children hard and the effects of the outbreak have been felt most intensely in minority households.

2020 was not a normal year for anybody. When the entire globe was engulfed in an unprecedented health crisis, countries went into lockdown and children began homeschooling. This resulted in a host of mental health issues, including anxiety over academic performance, difficulty focusing using long-distance technology, and missing out on the natural socialization that comes with in-person classes. Children have certainly sacrificed a lot. At the same time, they’ve had to face spending all day in sometimes very difficult home situations.

Children already living in tenuous circumstances have almost certainly fallen through the cracks when it comes to abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction – the three areas that make up the primary ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). We know that rates of alcoholism and drug abuse have skyrocketed in American homes, and so has childhood depression. According to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, from April through November of 2020 there was a 35% increase in children who needed mental health assistance compared to 2019 and an uptick in suicide attempts as well.

The Headlines:
While COVID-19 and issues surrounding vaccination and mask-wearing are ongoing, we cannot forget that everyday social ills are still happening simultaneously. The recent anti-Asian hate crimes and the beginning of the trial of officers involved in the murder of Floyd George are raising anxiety levels in children, particularly among those of Asian dissent, minority religions, and black and brown children.

Seven Ways to Build Resilience

Is it any wonder our children are struggling? Even though our reserves may be depleted, and many family relationships are burdened by the cumulative effects of fatigue and added hardship, now is the time to work on building resilience – in or children and for our families.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure, challenges, or even trauma. While scientists believe that resilience may have a genetic component, it’s not generally a quality that a child either has or doesn’t have; it’s really more of a skill that a child develops as they grow. Like a muscle that needs to be exercised, children can be helped to practice their resilience skills.

Talk. Talk. Talk.
The old adage is true: Keep the lines of communication open to strengthen your relationships. You can use the technique of asking open ended questions in order to draw out your children’s true feelings on different subjects. This means asking questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer. You can ask your child how certain situations make them feel. You can ask them if they’re experiencing anxiety or trepidation about going back to school. Asking “why” questions tends to get to the root cause of issues rather than asking questions that simply require factual answers. Open communication develops trust. Children who believe they can speak to their parents openly and honestly feel as if they have someone to rely on, someone who won’t automatically judge them, and these positive adult influences help buffer the effects of stress.

Allow Children to Learn and Fail
As adults, particularly as parents, we sometimes try to jump in to prevent our children from failing. It is difficult to watch them struggle when we know we could help. But children need to take risks and push themselves outside their comfort zone to build resilience. Trying something new and succeeding at it gives a child a sense of achievement and the knowledge that they can do new things and do them well. However, trying and failing is equally valuable. Taking a risk with something new that does not work out teaches children that they can survive setbacks. Rather than helping our children avoid risks, we should encourage them to take safe risks and then talk through the meaning of success and failure.

Teach Problem-Solving; Don’t Give Answers
Adults often have the answers to small problems and issues, but we learned those solutions from years of living our lives. Children do not have the benefits of this wisdom. They are still learning. They don’t have the perspective of time and experience. Rather than providing your child with the answer to every question, it’s more beneficial to let them reason it out with you. You can ask skillful questions to lead them along the right path, but the lesson is better learned when they reach the conclusion on their own.

Help Identify Emotions
Children who are “acting out” are often behaving that way because they lack the language to describe the frustration they are feeling. They lack the ability to adequately express themselves. You can work with your child to identify the emotions they’re experiencing and help them reason out why they are experiencing them. For example, you might say to a child who cannot master a game and has started crying: “You feel frustrated because the game is hard and you can’t seem to get it right.” This is called reflection because you are simply mirroring back to your child what they are feeling and helping them identify and name the emotion. You can let them know that the emotion is normal and that it will pass. Labeling emotions and teaching children how to manage them is a large part of good parenting. You can learn more about childhood development, reflective listening, and limit setting in our manual for parents, teachers, and caregivers entitled: “A Way of Being with Children: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Resilience.”

Acknowledge Mistakes
It is not a weakness to acknowledge our mistakes. We all make them! The most honest and resilient people are happy to accept this fact. They share their failures openly and, more importantly, they share what they learned from them. You can share your mistakes with your children and let them know why you made the mistake and how you will do things differently next time. This is a key component of resilience. We will all face challenges in our lives and whether we succeed or fail, we should not miss the lessons that can be learned.

Coping Skills and Modeling Self-Care
Children learn through imitation. They look to the adults in their lives to learn how to respond and behave. So, it’s essential that we model positive behaviors that they can copy. As adults, we can demonstrate calming ourselves down when we are irritated or angry, practicing deep breathing, and focusing on positivity and a firm belief in a brighter future. You can learn some fun and useful breathing techniques for adults and children on our resources page. You can also model self-care, demonstrating to your children that it is OK to take time for yourself when we’re feeling overwhelmed. In fact, it is essential to practice kindness and self-love.

Bring Positives Into Your Life
There are activities that make all of us feel better. Scientific research shows the benefits of exercise and spending time in nature. Encourage your children to take part in outdoor activities. Play is one of the ways children express themselves and it is essential to healthy development. You can also encourage your children to develop an interest in crafts, art projects, music, drama, writing, and any other positive activity that allows them to express their individuality.

The more a child understands his or her uniqueness (and the more you can accept and appreciate them for who they really are), the more they will understand that they are equipped to face any adversity that may come their way…and that good times, positivity, and happiness lie ahead for them and their family.

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Pandemic Trauma and Schooling: Supporting Kids in Crisis

We’ve been living in the world of the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year now. In the so-called “before times”, adults used the phrase “hitting the wall” as a way to describe a feeling of complete overload, a sense of being unable to continue normal functioning due to overwhelming circumstances. Recently, that phrase is being used to describe the experiences of children who have faced a daunting year of online learning, isolation, technology saturation, and general grief. Now, those same students are facing the new challenges of returning to traditional schooling, too.

Children who have “hit the wall” are struggling with school on every level and in different ways. Some are struggling with the loss of the normal socialization which being at school usually provides. Others are falling behind academically and are stressed as to whether they will ever be able to catch up. Still others are mourning the milestones they have lost that were once provided by the school setting — things like proms, big games, theater productions, class trips, and other school-based activities we all once took for granted.

Sobering Circumstances

To understand the complexity of the situation, let’s examine some of the ways the pandemic has hit families. According to an NBC report on the unexpected effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on children:

  • Emergency rooms have seen a 24 percent increase in mental health-related visits from children ages 5 to 11 compared to last year. The increase among older kids is even higher — 31 percent.
  • Food banks have been slammed with hungry families as an estimated 17 million children — many largely cut off from free school lunches — are now in danger of not having enough to eat. That’s an increase of more than 6 million hungry children compared to before the pandemic.
  • Schools are struggling to teach students remotely or in classrooms in which children wear masks and sit behind plastic shields. One national testing organization reported that the average student in grades 3-8 who took a math assessment this fall scored 5 to 10 percentile points behind students who took the same test last year, with Black, Hispanic and poor students falling even further behind.
  • Classrooms have been unusually empty, with quarantines and sickness affecting attendance in face-to-face schools and computer issues interfering with online instruction. Some districts report that the number of students who’ve missed at least 10 percent of classes, which studies show could lead to devastating lifelong consequences, has more than doubled.
  • And an estimated 3 million vulnerable students — who are homeless, in foster care, have disabilities or are learning English — appear to not be in school at all.

Children Have Been Hit Hard

At home, the signs that a child is struggling are as numerous as the reasons they might be struggling. Very young children may regress, wanting to sleep in bed with caregivers or wanting to be spoon-fed again after they’ve already mastered feeding themselves. Older children might seem clingy or more tearful than usual. These are all responses to the uncertainty and anxiety of the times we’re living in. For teens, rates of anxiety and depression are soaring. Paul Gionfriddo, the president and CEO of Mental Health America, an organization that supports people with mental illness, says approximately 10,000 people took its online depression and anxiety screening every day this year, twice as many as usual. The biggest rise is among children between the ages of 11 and 17. “We know that trauma builds on trauma,” Gionfriddo says. “Once people have experienced trauma, they are far more likely to have mental health effects later on, sometimes right away, sometimes decades later, and we know that repeated traumas can exacerbate and make that worse.”

And when it comes the trauma families and children have endured throughout 2020 (and continue to endure), a vaccine is not going to be a magical cure. “A nation of children coping with trauma and disruption will need more than a vaccine to address the fallout,” explains Betheny Gross, the associate director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. When it comes to the social, emotional, and academic ordeal so extreme that some advocates and experts warn its repercussions could rival those of a hurricane or other disaster. “Recovery from Katrina wasn’t a one-year recovery,” Gross explains. “We didn’t just bring the kids back and everything fell into place. And this will be the same.”

So, how can we support children as many of them continue remote lessons, and how can we help those who are transitioning back to the physical classroom setting?

The first important thing to note is that a wide range of emotions and responses should be considered normal in these abnormal circumstances. Some children may be showing signs of withdrawing, others may be acting out, some may be putting on a brave face so that they seem to be coping when they’re secretly filled with anxiety and stress. This last circumstance is most likely when parents or adults in the home are struggling. Some children’s response is to protect their parents when they see them under stress.

Back-to-School Woes

While some feel that things are “returning to normal” as far as school goes, nothing could be further from the truth. Schools that have reopened have done so under strict social distancing guidelines, with masks hiding faces and facial expressions and forming a barrier to communication. Again, nothing feels normal. As children return to classrooms, they come with as many challenges as you can imagine. Some have thrived with remote learning and are not excited to be back in the classroom. Some have struggled with remote learning and have fallen behind. They’re feeling anxiety as to whether they’ll be able to catch up. For those who are still taking part in remote learning, many have reached a place where they simply cannot focus or seem to achieve once easy tasks. The brain can only cope with so much technological stimulation in a given period of time. It is not possible to retain focus for eight hours a day on a glowing screen, no matter how engaging or enthusiastic a teacher may be. Many teachers have gone to heroic lengths to be innovative and exciting in their approach to online lessons but, after a year, these efforts are undoubtedly wearing thin on them, too.

Adversity Has Been Amplified

The children most affected by both home school and the return to school will be those facing racial, economic, and other inequities that have only become more pronounced since the pandemic began, David Hinojosa, the director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “They already lagged behind their peers in school, and already faced significant obstacles. And now they’ve taken the brunt of the pandemic’s pain,” he said.

As far as academics go, many schools have implemented mentoring programs and extra lessons to help children who may be falling through the cracks to catch up. But it’s important to remember that Adverse Community Environments are part of many children’s lives. Challenged communities with fewer resources (those with deprivation where poverty and and violence are a part of every day life) have faced the worst of the pandemics fallout. For children living in these environments, going to school was something of a refuge from the turmoil at home. For the past year, these students have been fully immersed in the adversity of their homes and neighborhoods and have likely struggled the most to find quiet places where they could focus on remote learning. Expecting these children to return to school without significant support is expecting too much.

Returning to school may bring with it fear associated with health. For so long, we’ve been teaching children social distancing and handwashing and being in close proximity might trigger fears.

Some Answers

As always, the answer to all these complex situations comes from the adult — the parent, teacher, or caregiver.

Communicate: Discuss how your child is feeling and why they are feeling that way. Don’t ask questions that have easy “yes” and “no” answers. Ask open-ended questions. Rather than: “Do you feel okay about going back to school?” (to which the answer can be “yes” because “okay” is a vague question). Rather, ask them: “What feelings do you have about  going back to school?” If those feelings are complicated or mixed, discuss them. You can reassure your child while still being realistic. Let them know that whatever consequences the return to school brings, you will work through them as a family.

Mirror Positivity: During times of trouble, children are desperate for security. Positive role models can be the buffer against adversity and anxiety. The more you can educate yourself so that you feel secure in your knowledge and your position on pandemic issues, the more security you can offer your child. You can say things like: “As a family, we choose to take this disease very seriously and we follow all the recommendations for handwashing and mask wearing. We also think it’s very important for you to go back to school and be around other children again.” (If this is your position). Explain why you have made your decisions and how your child’s school is protecting students.

Extra Help: If your child needs extra help, emotionally or academically, get it for them. Our School-Based Mental Health Program operates in schools throughout Palm Beach County. The SNAP program is also available to children identified as struggling. These are offered free through the County school system.

Most of all, help build resilience in children by talking to them about adversity. History provides countless times when humanity has been in far worse place — World War II, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic — but eventually we, as a society, overcame them. We have an arsenal of knowledge at our fingertips like science, vaccines, and the technology to educate people and spread accurate information very quickly. Focus on these positives and on a brighter future. Your children are looking to you, their parents and teachers, to model how they ought to be. So try to be the best model you can — giving your child the gift of security. Remember, you have years of valuable perspective which they don’t. This, too, shall pass. Good times do lie ahead. We may not know the exact nature of our future but we do know that large pieces of it will be very good indeed and we need to reassure our children of that.


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Moving from Global Trauma to Hope

Wednesday, January 20, 2021 was the start of a new era in American politics. Joseph Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. It ushered in a dramatic change in terms of leadership, but also represented the end of a four-year period of turmoil in the lives of everyday people, marked by division, dissent, violence, hatred, self-serving policies, incivility, nepotism, and greed. President Biden acknowledged the extraordinary times in which we live during his inaugural address. He named six distinct crises that the US faces: the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, growing inequality, racism, America’s global standing, and the general attack on truth and democracy.

“Any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face them all at once,” Biden said. “We will be judged–you and I–by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.”

The Cascading Crises

Biden’s words were sobering because they put a lot of what challenges us onto one overwhelming list. By acknowledging the intimidating set of circumstances in which we find ourselves, we can clearly see what we’re up against as individuals and as communities. However, most of these issues have been with us for quite some time. While the global pandemic first originated just a year ago (in January 2020), the other issues stretch back for decades, even generations. It is hard to say which of the stated problems is the most pressing. It seems we must tackle them all simultaneously, probably in small increments, if we are to see progress. And while we might rely hopefully for solutions from our new government, the truth is that addressing every one of these six “cascading crises of our era” is going to begin at home, in the attitudes and lives of normal, run-of-the-mill people.

Existing Strain Exacerbated by a Pandemic

Is it any wonder, looking at that list of crises, that many of us feel despondent, hopeless, and riddled with anxiety? The world seems daunting right now and fraught with uncertainty. As humans, we may feel as if we have little power to affect change; we may even feel as if our reserves of strength are diminished or completely depleted after such a long struggle, especially during an unprecedented pandemic. There is no doubt that our children are suffering profound and unknowable anxieties and fears, too. Research tells us that the levels of trauma among ordinary people are at an all-time high.

The pandemic alone has left millions without jobs, sent billions into isolation, and forced nearly everyone on earth to suddenly grapple with the discomforting fact that we are all physically vulnerable to an unseen viral enemy. “The scale of this outbreak as a traumatic event is almost beyond comprehension,” said Yuval Neria, the director of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a professor of psychology at Columbia University Medical Center. Neria says that the current health crisis can’t be compared to the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks or even the sweeping desolation of World War II, as the anxiety caused by those events was geographically limited. In this case, he said, “there are no boundaries.” We are experiencing truly global trauma.

Global Trauma

The most important first step is to recognize that we are all traumatized. To a greater or lesser or degree, every single person on the planet has suffered change or loss over the past year. Millions have lost their jobs – an economic disaster for some communities that disproportionately affects women, children, and minorities. 400,000 Coronavirus deaths in the United States alone means that millions of people are suffering profound grief over the loss of a loved one. The recent overt rise in white supremacy movements has left countless citizens of color living in fear in a country that proclaims equality as a core value. So, while all the normal sadness and losses of life are still routinely taking place, they are taking place against a never-before-seen backdrop of darkness, sadness, death, and uncertainty.

Perhaps there is comfort to be found in the fact that we are experiencing this simultaneously. While each person’s journey is unique, and so it’s not accurate to broadly claim that we are “all in this together”, nobody has been left unscathed by the recent stresses of life. It’s not worthwhile to compare your suffering to that of others, or to assume that people who seem to be coping better than you actually are. Because, in fact, our whole world has been traumatized. How can we know this? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. It provides three Es to ascertain the degree of trauma you’ve likely experienced based on your personal circumstances and natural coping abilities. By understanding how the three Es work together, you’ll better understand how we’ve been affected by the past few years and whether you will come out the other side of these challenges in a better place. The good news is that the power really does lie within you, as an individual, and you have some choice over where you end up, regardless of what happens.

The Three Es

Event: This is a situation or experience that happens to a person or in their environment. The original Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study conducted over twenty years ago looked at ten specific events in the lives of children under 18 that might result in trauma. These included incidents of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), neglect, and household dysfunction. Since then, the idea of what other ACEs should be on the list has expanded greatly to include many other potentially traumatic events like bullying, extreme medical interventions, natural disasters, etc. Usually these events need to result in sustained toxic stress that interferes with a child’s natural, healthy development for them to be considered traumatic – but everyone is unique and even a single profoundly distressing event can be enough to cause long-lasting trauma.

Experience: An individual’s experience of a particular event or circumstance helps to determine whether that event qualifies as traumatic. What one person considers traumatic might feel very different to another. According to SAMHA, “it is how the individual labels, assigns meaning to, and is disrupted physically and psychologically by the event determines whether that event is traumatic.” Age old wisdom tells us that we have a little control over what happens to us. What we can control, however, is how we choose to respond to what happens to us. This is a very empowering approach. Resilience (which may have a genetic component, but which is also clearly a muscle that can be exercised) may determine our degree of “bounce” — that is, how readily and quickly we are able to recover from and address adversity.

Effects: The combination of the events and our experience of those events can have a long-lasting effect on our lives. These effects may occur immediately or have a delayed onset. Their duration may be short or long term. Throughout our study of ACEs, we have learned that, in the absence of positive buffering influences, children raised with high levels of adversity can suffer neurological and physiological development delays which disadvantage them mentally and physically for their whole lives. But a counteracting, positive influence can serve as the antidote to all that toxicity and studies show that it can take as little as one buffer to right the course for a child.

When we understand what trauma is, how it affects children and their development, and how all of us are suffering a great, big dose of potential trauma right now, we can begin to employ empathy in our approach to others. Only then can we begin to “be the change we wish to see in the world”.

Take Back Your Personal Power

So, given that most of us are not politicians with the power to make sweeping legislative changes, what can we do? The answer is to take a moment and reassess. Call on the wisdom of perspective. Nothing lasts forever and all of us have power. We never feel that power as strongly as when we make the conscious decision to take it back. As individuals, we each have strength — perhaps not to overcome overwhelming global issues but certainly to address them ourselves in small ways that can change our immediate communities.

Get Trauma-Informed

The first crucial step is to get trauma-informed. By simply reading this blog means you’ve made a start to learn a little about ACEs and trauma. Being trauma-informed is broadly defined as embracing practices that promote a culture of safety, empowerment, and healing, and that encourage support and treatment of the whole person rather than treatment of individual symptoms or specific behaviors. Trauma-informed care initially shifted the focus from: “What’s wrong with you?” to: “What happened to you?” This attitude shift illustrates a move away from identifying behaviors in the moment which seem negative and digging deeper to get at the root causes of those behaviors and so start to work on healing them.

Armed with a knowledge of the three Es and an understanding of the importance of being trauma-informed, it’s time to review the concept of global trauma and distill it down to our own lives. In the coming months, our blog will look at practical ways you can become more trauma-informed in your workplace, the organizations to which we belong, and in your own home.

For our part, at Center for Child Counseling, we’re mission-driven to support children and families experiencing trauma – which means our client base now includes everyone! We’re providing extensive community resources in the form of online trainings that deliver crucial information and offer coping skills to parents and teachers. Our website offers help with techniques to reduce stress and assist children to deal with their fears over the pandemic. We can also tailor-make trainings for your specific group or organization to address your questions and needs around ACEs or trauma.

We’re also fortunate to work in a larger community that’s committed to trauma-informed growth, too. In Palm Beach County, some major initiatives keep us focused on this goal. We partner with other stakeholder agencies on the Birth to 22 initiative where we serve on the Trauma Sensitive Community Committee which strives to build trauma-informed best practices and ACEs awareness.

How can you make a difference in your world? What will empower you to counteract the “cascading crises of our era”? Each of us needs to assess ourselves and where we are on the spectrum of mental health. We’ll be offering guidance and support for you and your children on this journey. We are all dealing with our own traumas but sometimes the solution lies within. If you need extra help, ask for it from those who care about you and reach out to mental health professionals for their assistance. If you have a day when you feel you have the inner reserves to give to others then reach out to them and offer your help and compassion. Bringing trauma into the light is one way of addressing it. As Dr. Martin Luther King (whose birthday was also celebrated this past week) famously said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that…Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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Florida Blue Foundation Grants $360,000 to Promote a Better “Way of Being with Children”

Florida Blue Foundation has awarded Center for Child Counseling (CFCC) $360,762 to bring hope and healing to children and their families, and educate the community, by supporting the development and distribution of our unique curriculum called "A Way of Being with Children".

Mental health services are in demand more than ever before, particularly strategies to promote well-being and resilience. This is especially true in the case of children who have struggled under the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them experiencing fear, isolation, and the toxic stress that results from sustained periods of intense, unmitigated anxiety. Some children have tragically experienced profound abuse and neglect. Since its founding more than 20 years ago, Center for Child Counseling's mission has always focused on employing a trauma-informed method to help infants, children, and their families heal after trauma and go on to thrive. Over the past fifteen years, we have developed a unique, scientifically-based approach that is new way of working and simply 'being' with children.

Now, Florida Blue Foundation has awarded Center for Child Counseling a $360,762 grant over four years to support the development and implementation of the virtual component of our “A Way of Being with Children” curriculum. This will include community-wide training, awareness, program services, oversight, and evaluation.

The curriculum includes a 78-page printed guide and online training modules based in the latest brain science and knowledge of early childhood development. The training will include background information as well as practical hints and tips for building better, stronger relationships with children.

"We could not be more grateful to Florida Blue Foundation for their committed support," said CFCC's CEO Renée Layman. "It comes at a time when we are inundated with requests for services, particularly online assistance which allows parents, teachers, and caregivers the flexibility to learn at a time that is convenient for them. This vital information provides not only teachers with an opportunity to enhance their own understanding of childhood mental health but also informs the community at large in a way that is engaging, practical, and can make a real difference in the lives of our children."

The “A Way of Being with Children” curriculum is a transformative approach to childhood development and mental health that focuses on brain development, reflective listening, choices, limit setting, and building resilience -- all of which helps children self-regulate and feel empowered while still enjoying play and the natural joys of childhood.

About Florida Blue Foundation

Florida Blue Foundation enables healthy communities by making grants, building coalitions and rewarding best practices. More than three million people in Florida have received direct health services as a result of grants made to nonprofit organizations since our founding in 2001. Florida Blue Foundation is a trade name of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida Foundation, Inc., an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.

For more information about the Foundation, please visit Florida Blue and the Florida Blue Foundation are on Facebook and Twitter.

About Center for Child Counseling

Founded in 1999, Center for Child Counseling supports children, families, and caregivers through prevention, early intervention, and services focused on mitigating the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress, building positive relationships that buffer the impact of trauma. Research shows that toxic stress in childhood is directly linked to negative physical and mental health outcomes. Thousands of children in Palm Beach County experience stressful life events that will impact them for a lifetime without intervention. In 2019, Center for Child Counseling served over 3,800 children through six clinical programs and provided training for over 3,500 professionals, students, and caregivers to build adult capacity to meet the social-emotional needs of children.

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