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.

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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.

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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:

Grief:
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.

Loss:
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.

Isolation:
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.

Abuse:
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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Fighting ACEs in Palm Beach County

Fighting ACEs in Schools

Toxic stress: “The physiological result of exposure to high doses of adversity without the buffering presence of at least one supportive adult” - can have devastating effects on a child’s life and on communities because toxic stress:

  • Interferes with healthy brain development and can lead children to experience learning difficulties, as well as to adopt maladaptive coping mechanisms such as becoming violent, overeating, or abusing alcohol or other drugs;
  • Alters the body’s endocrine and immune systems, increasing the risk for cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and various autoimmune diseases;

Alters how genes are read and transcribed, which can be passed from generation to generation.

Through this initiative, we are partnering with the School District of Palm Beach County to train principals, teachers, staff, and leadership on the impact of toxic stress and trauma. Over the past year, we have trained hundreds of professionals in the public school system.

Economic Impact of ACEs

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are "The Leading Public Health Issue of our Time." 

In the absence of healthy or buffering relationships, childhood trauma and adversity can have a devastating impact on the minds and bodies of children. Research confirms that children carry the effects of childhood experiences throughout their lives.

Childhood Adversity Research Facts: Over the last 20 years, research has transformed our understanding of how toxic stress resulting from childhood adversity is at the root of many chronic physical and mental health problems. It has a major impact on the economic and social health of communities. 

  • ACEs are surprisingly common (most of us have experienced at least one);
  • ACEs may lead to chronic diseases, depression and other mental illnesses, and violence;
  • Outcomes related to a high ACE score:
    • An ACE score of 4 increases the risk of alcoholism seven times and attempted suicide 12 times; it also doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer.
    • People with high ACE scores have higher rates of divorce, unwanted pregnancies, prescription drug abuse, broken bones, and obesity.

Without positive intervention, those with six or more ACEs have shorter lifespans by up to 20 years

Creating a Trauma-Informed Community

In 2013, the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners and a group of community organizations and leaders convened the Infant, Child, Youth and Young Adult Symposium (Youth Symposium) to share information and identify actions and programs to support the healthy growth, development and education of children and youth from prenatal to young adulthood. 

Birth to 22: United for Brighter Futures is the alliance of community partners that emerged from the Youth Symposium. For the past five years, this alliance has engaged other existing coalitions, networks and youth serving organizations, as well as connecting with families, community members, and, most importantly, with local youth directly. 

Click here to learn more about Birth to 22, the Youth Master Plan, and resources in Palm Beach County.

Childhood trauma isn’t something you just get over as you grow up.

Children who live in environments where there is ongoing exposure to violence, abuse, and neglect - in the absence of buffering relationships - are at-risk for an array of problems throughout the lifespan. Prevention and early intervention efforts are critical - and all the key players in community need to be involved.

Through the Fighting ACEs Initiative, Center for Child Counseling is working with leaders, stakeholders, and organizations throughout Palm Beach County to help create a trauma-informed community.

Due to the interest in continuing this important conversation, we created this blog to share information and get your feedback, questions, ideas, and resources.

PBC Leaders Fighting ACEs

What are ACEs?

aces

What’s Your ACE Score?

Take a few minutes to complete the ACE survey.
 
Your answers will be completely anonymous. Please know that this survey is for your own purposes. If you have questions or would like a free phone consultation, please call 561-244-9499.
 
What are ACEs?
 
ACEs - Adverse Childhood Experiences - harm children’s developing brains so profoundly that the effects show up decades later; they cause much of chronic disease, most mental illness, and are at the root of most violence. Source: ACEs Too High
 
Information about ACEs - Adverse Childhood Experiences - is based on the results from a large study in the mid 1990s which discovered a direct correlation between adverse experiences as a child and a decline in mental and physical well-being in adulthood. The study narrowed down ten ACEs and developed a survey to get a person’s ACE "score."
 
The ACE Study has published about 70 research papers since 1998 and hundreds of additional research papers based on the ACE Study have been published.
 
What is A Trauma-Informed Approach?
 
A trauma-informed approach asks: “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” It is designed to avoid re-traumatizing already traumatized people, with a focus on “safety first” (including emotional safety), and a commitment to do no harm.
 

How Resilience is Built

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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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.

Becoming More Trauma-Informed During COVID-19

It’s that time of year when we all start to think about resolutions. How can we do better in 2021, as individuals and as a community? There is no doubt that 2020 has been one of the most challenging years in recent memory, driven primarily by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Consider some of the momentous implications of the global pandemic:

All these circumstances mean we are facing an unprecedented mental and behavioral health crisis. As always, it is often the children who bear the brunt of adults’ decisions; they are forced to face high-stress situations they had no part in creating. Even strong parents are feeling exhausted and burnt out both in their jobs and their personal lives. As we reflect on 2020, there’s no doubt we all feel the need to try and do better in the future. So, as we begin to think about how we would like our homes, communities, and work spaces to be in the year ahead, there is probably no more effective resolution than to decide to improve our interactions with other people, so that we can all acknowledge the traumatic life experiences we have undoubtedly lived through.

Resolving to work out more at the gym, lose weight, or focus on healthy eating are all great New Year goals, but why not decide to change your outlook in 2021 to focus on becoming a more trauma-informed and compassionate human being? You could also decide to bring this new attitude to your workplace whether it’s a physical location or a series of online interactions and meetings.

The way we choose to see and work with people can change our own lives. What does it mean to be trauma-informed? And what are the benefits of growing more trauma-informed organizations in our communities?

The National Healthcare Council for the Homeless describes a trauma-informed organization as one that has undergone  a “practice transformation which recognizes the trauma of clients, staff, and the community, and creates an organizational structure that avoids re-traumatization and encourages healing.” There are several simple ways you can move your life and your work towards a more trauma-informed place.

Education, Training, and Understanding

Organizations are comprised of people, individuals, and so building a more true-informed organization means helping people to understand how trauma affects human beings, their relationships, and even their capacity to cope with stress and other difficult circumstances. Science shows that childhood trauma can significantly impact the healthy brain development of infants and very young children. In extreme cases, ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) can result in permanent cognitive impairment (especially if positive, buffering influences are absent).

It is important to understand that there is established science in the field of trauma and its effects, and we need to be informed on the subject. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network outlines some of these issues, including how children of trauma may have difficulty identifying, expressing, and managing emotions. They often display atypical stress reactions which can result in depression, anxiety, or anger. They can struggle to form successful relationships and may react in unusual ways to situations that others may cope with easily. All of these issues follow children into their adulthood. These children of trauma are our friends, neighbors, and colleagues. We interact with traumatized people every day and understanding them goes a long way to improving interactions and relationships with them.

To this end, Center for Child Counseling has developed a series of trainings for professionals and the community at large which delve into the science of trauma and help people understand it better. We encourage you and your organization’s staff to take advantage of these free and low-cost educational opportunities.

Attitude Adjustment

The primary factor in becoming more trauma-informed is one of attitude. This may sound deceptively simple, but it’s also the hardest aspect to master. Because attitude is developed over time, many of us retain views and opinions about others we learned as children. Often, these views are based on outdated and ignorant biases, racism, and skepticism. Our views of different groups may be stereotypical and mostly negative. It is only when we come to know or interact with someone from that group that we learn our beliefs are misconceptions, deeply untrue. A shift in attitude involves leaving these old attitudes behind. The same principle holds true when we interact with people who’ve experienced trauma in childhood or later on in life. They may react in ways that seem odd to us, overreact, or refuse to engage in productive conversations about issues. Rather than being exasperated by these responses, it helps to dig a little deeper and try to understand where the response is coming from.

We have no way of knowing what others have experienced in their past. So, we must use a trauma-informed response to their behavior. This involves adjusting our attitude from one of blaming to one of questioning, from assigning a negative response to assigning an open one that allows for communication. In the simplest sense, it means asking not what’s wrong with the other person but rather what might’ve happened to them that is causing them to react in a given way.

Becoming trauma-informed is not the result of making a single change or taking a single step. It is the result of cumulative changes within the individual and the organization. It also requires constant awareness, sensitivity, and an attitude shift among all individuals within an organization. For those providing direct care, professional training is most likely required in order to bring an organization to a more trauma-informed place. 

Support for Staff

You can choose to be the trauma-informed person in your extended family, your community, or your workplace. If you are in the position to provide leadership within your organization, you can choose to implement more trauma-informed policies and procedures. Even adopting a few principles for your workplace can create a better, more supportive environment for people managing the effects of trauma. This will undoubtedly help to improve relationships between colleagues and enhance productivity.

At Center for Child Counseling, we pride ourselves on being a trauma-informed organization and all our skilled therapists work from a place of compassion, understanding, acceptance, and genuine concern. While we always show our clients and their families the respect and care they are due, we also extend that same respect and care to our employees. Providing therapy and counseling to children and families affected by trauma has been our mission since the founding of the organization, but we also understand that this is not easy work and that it requires very special people to do it and do it well. Few jobs can be as emotionally demanding as that of mental and behavioral health professionals, so we safeguard the well-being of our staff in many ways, including encouraging self-care and providing weekly supervision meetings to support each member individually.

Recently, we received grants from BeWellPBC and Healthier Jupiter for our “Healing the Healers” initiative. This involves providing training, resources, and extra support to our staff so that they can, in turn, provide that extra care to our clients. It is our goal to expand this program to provide it to other organizations and we are seeking funding to do so. There has never been a more crucial or critical time to invest in support for caregivers.

So, as 2021 approaches, let’s commit to bringing more kindness, compassion, and care to our interactions with others. It’s only by expanding our capacity for love that we can counteract the pervasive negativity all around us. There is a saying, often attributed to Plato, that states: “Be kind to all you meet, for everyone is in the midst of a great struggle.” If we adopt the attitude that the human experience can be challenging and that we all need support at times, we can start to mend the divisions between us and grow happier children, stronger families, and more resilient communities.

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.

ACEs and Children’s Mental Health in Schools

Many parents are breathing a sigh of relief this month as their children return to in-person learning at school. While it’s a welcome break from juggling the competing needs of home schooling and work for some parents, others have mixed feelings about schools re-opening. Parents’ responses range from mild concern to extreme reservation. The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused intense feelings of stress, fear, and apprehension but the return to school brings its own set of uncertainties. Are our schools safe? Are we, as a society, prepared to tackle future outbreaks? Is our children’s mental health being considered?

While the return to school may seem like a return to normal, it’s anything but. Schools will be tasked with managing the results of the past year when homes have been thrown into turmoil, financial strain has been extreme, and children’s minds have been confused and overwhelmed by the constant barrage of (often mixed) pandemic messages. Prior to the pandemic, children were already experiencing more mental health concerns, including escalating rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide rates tripling from 2007-2017 for those ages 10-14 years old. Researchers expect the post-pandemic mental health crisis to cause these numbers to rise even more.

ACEs and Children’s Environments

Pandemic pandemonium aside, every day thousands of children arrive at school deeply affected by the circumstances in their homes and communities. ACEs describe specific adverse experiences that occur before the age of 18, but childhood trauma can be caused by circumstances that exist outside the home, too. The latest understanding of ACEs acknowledges that in the absence of buffering relationships, intangible situations like racism, fear of neighborhood gangs, bullying, and countless other unmitigated societal ills can cause the toxic stress that hampers brain development and delays children’s normal, healthy growth.

Currently, children have the added burden of an international health disaster. We cannot underestimate the profound impact this global crisis has had on our children. We also cannot fully predict the extent and exact nature of the mental health fallout, or ‘echo pandemic’ we are likely to experience as children come to terms with the isolation, changed family circumstances, fear, and anxiety of spending months and months at home, many of them in abusive or neglectful environments.

The following graphic, courtesy of ACEs Connection, shows how adversity affects children at home, in the community, and in the overall atmosphere or environment in which they live. Children bring adversity from all three of these realms with them to school.

Image courtesy of www.ACEsConnection.com

Service at Schools Make Sense

So why does it make sense to focus a large portion of our childhood mental health efforts on schools? Quite simply because that’s where children are for a good portion of most days. Bringing services to where children are makes sense, but it also makes for stronger, better schools and improved educational outcomes. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, mental health plays a crucial part in a child’s academic success as well as their future success in life. Students who have access to social–emotional and mental health support at school do better in their studies and are generally better adjusted to face life’s ups and downs. These children enjoy stronger relationships and are more likely to participate in a wide range of sports and extracurricular activities. A school that works on its mental health climate and encourages both student connectedness and teacher wellbeing is a school that is going to be a healthy place where students feel free to express themselves and where behavior in the classroom is well managed.

Despite the fact that schools which embrace metal health services have been shown to thrive, there is a growing unmet need for mental health services for children and youth. According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in five children and adolescents experience a mental health problem during their school years. Unfortunately, an estimated 60% of students do not receive treatment due either to stigma or simply the lack of access to services. Of those who do get help, however, nearly two thirds do so only in school. Issues can include anything from depression, to stress and anxiety, bullying, family problems at home, learning difficulties, and alcohol and substance abuse. Serious mental health problems, such as self-harming and suicidal ideation, are on the rise, too.

The Right Intervention At the Right Age

Since we work with children from birth to 18, Center for Child Counseling has formed a close partnership with the Palm Beach County School District in order to bring our unique blend of trauma-informed resiliency building to as many children as possible. Our approach has always focused on prevention and early intervention services, as well as targeted clinical care for those children who need it most. The skills our therapists teach can benefit a child throughout their lifetime, such as self-regulation, executive functioning skills, and healthy relationship building. Our approach is science- and research-based and is founded on the latest understanding of children’s developing brains.

As a general rule, the earlier we can connect with children, the better the outcome is likely to be. This is especially true for children impacted by trauma and abuse, those who are dealing with ACEs. So many of the behaviors exhibited in classrooms (and which are so disruptive to all students) are really just symptoms of an underlying problem a child is finding it difficult to express. Before the necessary language skills develop, these experiences may be expressed by fighting, biting, hitting, and unruly outbursts. Our skilled therapists look for what is happening in a young child’s life that is prompting these behaviors.

But it’s not just children who are struggling who benefit from our in-school support. All children need to develop resiliency or the ability to bounce back from life’s setbacks. Children who do well in the face of hardship usually have a biological resistance to adversity and strong relationships with the important adults in their family and community. Often, teachers can play this role along with parents and caregivers. You can learn more about teachers as buffers in one of our prior blog posts.

Having a mental health professional on-site and available to respond can make all the difference in the environment every student and teacher experiences on a daily basis in their school. Center for Child Counseling operates three programs within the school system:

CCSEW (Childcare and Community Social-Emotional Wellness) 

Our CCSEW Program brings on-site prevention, early intervention, and counseling services into childcare centers, schools, and shelters in Palm Beach County. Developing the capacity of adults, through workshops and consultation, in our community to meet the social-emotional needs of young children is an essential part of this program. Our team of CCSEW therapists are co-located in select Palm Beach County Schools as well as childcare centers and shelters throughout Palm Beach County.

Our therapists provide prevention, early intervention, and teacher support services. These services are co-located, with our therapists and interns working as a part of the fabric of the school and community to meet the therapeutic needs of children and their families.

School-Based Mental Health Program

Our School-Based Mental Health Program is conducted by a team of skilled therapists co-located in select Palm Beach County schools who work on-site with more than 1,200 students from pre-Kindergarten to 5th grade. We provide services including classroom support, contact with teachers and caregivers, crisis intervention, and one-on-one therapy support within the school setting, at home, and out in the community.

The goal of this program is to meet the needs the highest-risk students, some of whom may not be identified otherwise and may never be linked to the mental health services that will undoubtedly help them.

Created as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) Public Safety Act for school safety, this program aims to provide students and their families with evidence-based mental health treatment that includes assessment, diagnosis, intervention, treatment, and recovery.

SNAP® – Stop Now and Plan

Funded by the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, the Stop Now And Plan (SNAP®) Program serves as a “front-end” resource to the Department of Juvenile Justice, Office of Prevention, for at-risk youth aged 6-11 and their families.

Each SNAP® program provides high-risk youth and their families’ strategies to increase pro-social skills that will help the youth stay in school and out of trouble by making better choices throughout the 13-week program. Youth and their families participate in engaging activities such as group discussions, role-playing, interactive games and self-reflection to address topics including dealing with anger, learning how to cope and practice self-control, engaging in problem solving and learning not to bully and how to prevent bullying. SNAP® is an evidence-based behavioral model that provides a framework for teaching children struggling with behavior issues, and their parents, effective emotional regulation, self-control and problem-solving skills. The primary goal of SNAP is to keep children in school and out of trouble by helping them make better choices “in the moment.”

So, as your children head back to school to differing degrees, advocate for their mental health and ask if essential services are available to them. If your school has an on-site therapist, get to know him/her and reach out to them with your questions. The Center for Child Counseling team is equipped to help you with COVID-19-related issues and any of the normal anxieties of life your child might be facing. ACEs at home, in the community, or in the overall environment don’t necessarily have to result in trauma for your child or lifelong negative consequences. Your response to these experiences can make all the difference in the world to your child and their future happiness at school and in life.

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Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) and Play

By now, we know that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are as pervasive as they are dangerous. No community, race, or socio-economic group is immune to their insidious effects. We know that toxic stress caused by sustained childhood trauma can impact children’s growing brains, resulting in potentially devastating mental and physical health outcomes throughout the lifespan. Scientific studies bear out the fact that childhood adversity can result in countless social ills from alcoholism to suicide to diabetes, but it is comforting to realize that the opposite is equally true. Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) are the kinds of activities and experiences that enhance a child’s life, resulting in successful mental and physical health outcomes. According to a recent study cited by Contemporary Pediatrics, “positive childhood experiences [may even] counter the damaging effects of adverse experiences.” PCEs are what make childhood such a joy, a time of growth, change, exploration, and undiluted happiness. So what interactions make the most effective PCEs and how can we focus on filling our homes (and the lives of all the children in our community) with these kinds of uplifting, fortifying experiences?

The Power of Positive Experiences

Whether we are parents, caregivers, or someone who spends a significant amount of time with children, as adults we play the most crucial role in childhood happiness. PCEs include identifiable situations in a child’s life that set them up for success such as feeling safe at home, having adults who support them, and being able to talk to the adults in their lives during difficult times. It seems clear that children thrive when they are provided with clear structure, age-appropriate games and entertainment, security, a kind yet authoritative parenting style, and oodles of love and acceptance. This is the kind of atmosphere in which children thrive, learning the skills they will need to be happy, healthy adults and productive contributors to society.

Of course, this is the “dream childhood” that many (if not most) of the world’s children will never experience. But families don’t have to be perfect for children’s lives to be full of positive childhood experiences. As long as there are buffers against the negative or traumatic experiences, children can learn to be resilient and rise to meet the challenges in their homes and communities. In fact, studies show that the presence of just one positive adult influence can make all the difference in a child’s life. No matter what a child’s circumstances are, each of us can be the adult who brings positivity, solid life lessons, stimulating experiences, and fun and laughter into a little one’s life.

Play is a Child’s Language

One thing most of us associate with childhood is play. Playfulness is the defining attribute of most children. It’s a quality that many of us miss as adults. A lot of the activities we engage in as adults like sports, games, practical jokes, or general silliness are an attempt to reconnect with the freedoms and exhilaration of childhood. But does it seem like the type of play children engage in has changed? It certainly has. You’ve probably noticed that the children in your life don’t play in the same way you did as a child. Were you outdoors more? Did you have to rely on your imagination to entertain yourself and your friends? Do you look at the amount of time your children spend on screens with concern? You should. As human beings, we may be adaptable, but recent studies confirm what scientists, child development experts, and pediatricians have been saying for some time: too much screen time can be detrimental to your child’s physical and mental health. It’s not necessarily that simply looking at a screen for a few hours a day is inherently harmful, but it takes away time from other activities your children definitely should be doing like being outside, exercising, and getting enough quality sleep. There are lots of ways to help manage the time your children spend on screens, if you feel it’s getting out of control.

Screen Time vs. Real Play

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s screen time has rocketed. Where it might’ve been a vague concern before, it is now a genuine threat to mental health. Many children are now home schooled remotely using screens for a good portion of the day and then rely on screens for entertainment in the form of television viewing and gaming at night. “Children’s brains are not designed to grow and develop from screens,” explains Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children’s Health and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. “The brain is designed to develop from human interaction and exploration of the natural environment.” So what is the antidote to screen time and how can we replace the opportunities children have lost as social distancing prevents them from playing naturally with other children as they once did?

As the old adage goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Even though play seems to have changed over generations, young children still love the same things we loved when we were young — activities like drawing, coloring, playing with toys, acting out adventures with figurines, dressing up, conducting puppet shows, and reading books (especially with mom and dad when they are still very young). Examining a few of these few evergreen activities clearly illustrates their benefits and why we should never discourage time spent doing them.

The Purpose of Play

Firstly, we should can ask ourselves why children play? Play is a crucial developmental activity that teaches children countless lessons and prepares them for many adult roles. For example, coloring books teach physical dexterity. You will notice that as a child grows, their ability to control their crayons and pens increases. They are able to stay within the lines, eventually becoming very adept at coloring in perfectly. At this point, they may become bored with this activity and move onto another type of play that will challenge them to develop in different ways. When children play with the figurines or toys, they often use them to understand the world they live in, working out relationships, re-creating situations they have seen or experienced, or simply expanding their imaginations to create a whole new world. By watching children play, we can gain insight into what they are trying to work out in their minds, if something is bothering or upsetting them, or if there are issues that they seem to have trouble resolving.

We Can Learn from Children’s Play

Play also offers adults an opportunity to identify skill sets in a child that are unique to them and which are going to be part of who they are as they grow up. Some children demonstrate very clear talents or abilities in very specific areas at a young age such as art, music, creative writing, building, fixing, curiosity with nature, etc. It is our job as adults to nurture these interests and skills, to tell the child that they are talented in this area, and to encourage their interest. This builds self-esteem and allows the child to excel and thrive as they learn to be proud of their uniqueness.

Play is very revealing in other ways too. Children are individuals and develop at different rates, but there are certain developmental milestones that healthcare professionals look for to determine whether a child is reaching growth goals within an appropriate time-frame. These milestones are identified by the degree of skill with which a very young child can complete simple tasks. For example, by the age of 18 months, a child should be able to play act an everyday task like pretending to feed a doll. By the age of five, a child should enjoy singing and dancing and be able to complete a somersault. Pediatricians, teachers, and other experts may be able to determine if children are falling behind developmentally based on their dexterity and physicality but also by watching their social interactions with other children during play. Are they able to share? Can they manage their feelings (or self-regulate) when small disputes arise on the playground? A thoughtful, observant adult can intervene as a buffer when they witness a child struggling in any of these areas. You do not need to be a childcare expert to step in and help children learn vital skills like problem-solving, mediation, cooperation, and general kindness and sharing.

Play as an Antidote to Stress

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many people’s lives into turmoil. Fear and anxiety are at an all-time high among adults and children. Financial difficulties caused by the economic shutdown, uncertainty about the future, and all the unknowns caused by these unexpected events have many families facing a year of intense challenges. Children are very astute when it comes to picking up the atmosphere in a home; they are undoubtedly hearing news, whether you intend them to or not. At a time like this, play becomes more essential than ever before to relieve stress and provide joy. We need to give our children as many opportunities as possible to simply be children. It seems that “play more, worry less” should be the mantra of the day, even though it may be easier said than done.

While screen time and video games seem like quick fix solutions to keep children entertained, even a small amount of effort in the direction of real-life play will pay off in terms of your child’s happiness. At Center for Child Counseling, our work revolves around the therapeutic nature of play. Our mission is building the foundation for playful, healthful, and hopeful living for children, families, and communities in Palm Beach County and beyond. Play therapy is at the core of our work but the overwhelming benefits of play can be duplicated in every home in the country with a little bit of effort. Remember, your children love you, look up to you, and are hungry for time with you. This may be very difficult for parents and caregivers who are working from home and homeschooling their children, but even a half hour at bedtime sharing a book together will create a sense of security and memories of love and togetherness that will draw your child closer to you.

Providing Play Kits 

Sadly, for some families, simply providing their children with the physical tools to facilitate play is a financial burden. For this reason, we have developed age-appropriate play kits which contain items like books, games, toys, crayons, coloring books, figurines, playdough, tip sheets, and other items that are at the heart of healthy, real-world play. Through generous grants from the Town of Palm Beach United Way, the United Way of Palm Beach County, Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County, and individual supporters like Ruth Hartman and Kathy Leone, these kits will be used to guide Telehealth sessions, with our therapists working closely with caregivers to promote healthy parent-child attachment, expression of feelings, and processing of traumatic experiences.

While Center for Child Counseling provides professional therapeutic services for children and families who have experienced trauma or who need mental health assistance, many of the benefits we provide as professionals can be duplicated on a much simpler level in your home. Make it a priority to carve out some time every day to play a little with your children, save them from an hour of screen time, and experience some of the joy, fun, and laughter of being a child again. This is a time when we could all benefit from a little more childish silliness and laughter.

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.
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