Lead the Fight attracts community leaders from 23 states and 11 countries

NEWS RELEASE

February 25, 2022
For immediate release
Media contact: Cara Scarola Hansen
Center for Child Counseling Public Relations Counsel
cara@yourmissionmarketing.com

Lead the Fight, ACEs event, attracts community leaders from 23 states and 11 countries:
Author Juleus Ghunta and UNICEF’s Benjamin Perks advocate for giving children with trauma a voice

Lead the Fight, Giving Children with Trauma a Voice, took place Tuesday, February 22, 2022–hosted by Palm Beach County non-profit Center for Child Counseling (CFCC). The event featured a virtual book reading of Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story about ACEs and Hope and conversation with author Juleus Ghunta, as well as the keynote address given by Benjamin Perks, head of Campaigns and Advocacy at UNICEF. Ashley Glass, co-anchor of CBS12 News This Morning, emceed the international event which brought together community sector leaders from 23 states and 11 countries around the globe to learn, strategize, and take action to end child abuse and neglect.   

The event opened with Glass laying the foundation of the American Academy of Pediatrics defining adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma as “the Public Health issue of our time”–further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite ACEs being the root cause of many crises our communities face–gun violence, domestic abuse, overflowing jails, homelessness, child abuse, addiction, chronic disease, and mental illness–the event gave the more than 270 registrants hope.

“We are here tonight to talk about solutions–ways we can Lead the Fight…Adversity doesn’t mean a death sentence. With the help of a caring community, resilience grows and builds through each adverse outcome…Know your role in creating trauma-informed communities: be a buffering influence in the life of a child who needs you,” stated Glass. 

Renée Layman, chief executive officer of CFCC, followed with her rally cry, “We don’t have to wait for a child to fall apart before we do something….As mental health professionals, we can’t do it all…We need to figure out collectively how to build the capacity of our community to affect mental health.”

In Perks’ keynote address, he explained the importance of connection, not as a luxury but part of our evolutionary biology, and how human beings are dependent on adults for longer in the life cycle than any other species: “We depend on [adults] for three things–for love, for nurture, and for protection. We have a biological need to be loved…it’s there from day one.”

He continued to explain the need and importance of buffering adults in children’s lives: “Every child needs a champion who will be there for them no matter what, to form a deep connection and hold them up to the highest standards and help them to achieve those standards. We live in a world powered by the love of teachers, caregivers, and parents, but we also all too often take that for granted and fail to invest in it. Connections with them are the vaccines against and the medicine for adverse childhood experiences and having the power to break intergenerational trauma.”

Perks championed the idea that communities need to do more to protect vulnerable children than to exploit them. 

Following Perks address, Ghunta answered questions related to his personal and difficult journey with adverse childhood experiences and the inspiration for his new book, Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story about ACEs and Hope. Ghunta described the book as coming from a “very deep, deep place inside of me…this is a book about my life, my story, my experiences as a survivor of about 18 adverse childhood experiences.”

Ghunta then delivered an animated and heartfelt reading of Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows which highlights the need to find transformative ways of engaging with perpetrators of ACEs and the role families and communities can play in helping survivors develop resilience and hope. 

As part of Center for Child Counseling’s mission to build playful, healthful, and hopeful living for children and families, the agency is educating adult caregivers to build their capacity to implement effective strategies to promote resilience and help children. CFCC developed ‘Lead the Fight’ in 2016 to bring awareness to system leaders around fighting childhood adversity with advocacy and action. In 2021, the event was transformed into a virtual action series in response to the pandemic and the urgent need to move forward policies and practices that support children’s mental health and resilience. 

“For the 2022 launch, we are incredibly grateful to Ben Perks and Juleus Ghunta for leading the fight against ACEs and sharing their poignant reflections and experiences related to childhood trauma and adversity with our global community. And we thank Ashley Glass for lending her voice and joining the fight to help tackle the effects of ACEs. It’s imperative that we continue to share the message that children thrive when they have regular interactions with responsive, caring adults. Therefore, we have to continue to make the adults in our neighborhoods, schools, healthcare, and community center ACEs- and trauma-aware, so they can buffer the adversity children experience at home, preventing further harm,” reflected Layman. 

By using a virtual platform to host the event, Ghunta joined from Japan, Perks from New York, and Glass from Florida. Attendees also participated from Aruba, Bermuda, Canada, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Kingdom.

For more information on joining the fight and helping tackle the effects of adverse childhood experiences, visit centerforchildcounseling.org

ABOUT JULEUS GHUNTA:

Juleus Ghunta is a Chevening Scholar, children’s writer, a member of Jamaica’s National Task Force on Character Education, and an advocate in the Caribbean’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) movement.

Ghunta holds a BA in Media from The University of the West Indies, Mona, and an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford. His work explores the links between toxic stress and academic underachievement. His poems and essays on ACEs have appeared in 30+ journals across 16 countries. His picture book, Tata and the Big Bad Bull, was published by CaribbeanReads in 2018, and he is the co-editor of the December 2019 and March 2020 issues of Interviewing the Caribbean (The UWI Press), focused on children’s literature and ACEs in the Caribbean. Juleus’ new book, Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story About ACEs and Hope, was published by CaribbeanReads on December 31, 2021. His Notebook of Words and Ideas, which features prominently in Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows, will be published by CaribbeanReads in 2022. 

ABOUT BENJAMIN PERKS:

Benjamin Perks is the Head of Campaigns and Advocacy in the Division of Global Communications and Advocacy  at the United Nations Children’s Fund, based in New York. He leads on public and policy advocacy on issues related to the survival, development and protection of children. He is a member of the Policy Advisory Group on the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children and serves on a number of other bodies.

In personal capacity, he is Senior Fellow at the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham in the UK, which researches education policy on character, social, and emotional development of children. He holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury and has recently completed a mid-career program with the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Leadership and Education Reform.  He is recognized as a public speaker, blogger, and influencer on violence against children and adverse childhood experiences. His TedX talk on Adverse Childhood Experiences can be found here. Perks can be followed on twitter and his blogsite.

ABOUT ASHLEY GLASS:

Ashley Glass, a highly-regarded journalist with almost two decades of experience as an anchor and reporter, is the weekday co-anchor of CBS12 News This Morning 4:30-7 am, and CBS12 News at 9 am and noon. She has previously worked in Tampa, Springfield, IL and Gainesville. Ashley has covered many significant news events, is a champion for small businesses, and produces and presents regular special reports on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on children’s mental health and other timely issues. She graduated from the University of Florida with honors and dual degrees in Telecommunication-News and Political Science. Ashley has two daughters and loves living in Palm Beach County. 

PARTNERS LEADING THE FIGHT:

Partnership sponsors who are leading the fight and made this important and necessary panel conversation possible include: First Republic Bank, WPEC CBS 12, Children’s Services Council Palm Beach County, Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart ShipleyWard Damon Attorneys at Law, and Premier Pediatrics.

CFCC’s Fighting ACEs initiative to build trauma-informed communities is made possible with the generous support of Quantum Foundation, Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, and private donors.

RECORDING OF THE EVENT:

Click here to view the full recording of the “Lead the Fight 2022” event.

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Raising Awareness During Child Abuse Prevention Month

NEWS RELEASE
April 12, 2021
For immediate release
Media contact: Cara Scarola Hansen
cara@yourmissionmarketing.com
561-632-6747

COVID Increases Risk for Child Abuse: Center for Child Counseling Fights ACEs and Raises Awareness During Child Abuse Prevention Month

In recognition of April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, Center for Child Counseling (CFCC) is raising awareness and building prevention methods for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in Palm Beach County.

According to the CDC, heightened stress, school closures, loss of income, and social isolation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the risk for child abuse and neglect. Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as abuse and neglect, are a leading public health issue. In the absence of healthy and buffering relationships, childhood trauma and adversity can have a devastating impact on the minds and bodies of children and lead to a lifetime of issues for individuals, including mental and physical health difficulties and a shorter life expectancy.

“ACEs are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today,” said Dr. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

While the focus has undoubtedly been on the 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. Children already living in tenuous circumstances have almost certainly fallen through the cracks when it comes to abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. The rates of alcoholism and drug abuse have skyrocketed in American homes, as 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.

Center for Child Counseling continuously works to fight ACEs and promote solutions. Building a resilient community to support child-wellbeing is the overarching goal.

“If we ensure that every community is equipped to support people who have experienced traumatic events, we make resilience a real possibility. Abuse and neglect don’t discriminate and neither do behavioral issues or family dysfunction,” states Renée Layman, Chief Executive Officer at CFCC, which aims to fill critical gaps in the system of mental health care for young children and their families.

CFCC’s Fighting ACEs initiative includes an array of prevention and early intervention activities including direct services for children and families, clinical training and supervision, and educational workshops for caregivers and professionals–teachers, social workers, childcare workers, police officers, attorneys, nonprofits, foster care homes, pediatricians, etc.–who work with children on how to recognize signs of Adverse Childhood Experiences and combat toxic stress in children. The ultimate goal in preventing abuse and mitigating long-term effects is to create a system-wide network of adult ‘buffers’ who are trauma-informed and ‘ACEs aware.’  

“Fighting ACEs is at the core of our mission. Mental, emotional, social, and physical well-being are directly linked to what happens in early childhood. We are able to provide multi-layered interventions and support for families and caregivers who are dealing with the effects of ACEs,” says Layman.

In addition to intervention, CFCC also recognizes the importance of prevention as a key solution. During this period of uncertainty and change, many children are craving reassurance and support from the adults in their lives–parents, family members, caregivers, and educators. Adults are also likely finding the need for extra support to navigate the chaos of a pandemic-driven world. One way that Center for Child Counseling is building a resilient community is through free online trainings and workshops that offer practical advice and coping techniques to meet the expressed needs of our communities. Topics range from ‘Resilience Building – A Guide for Educators’ to ‘How to Manage Sibling Rivalry’ to ‘Supporting Children During COVID-19.’

To nurture children’s potential and to promote greater health and wellbeing throughout Florida, one of the most impactful things community members can do is address Adverse Childhood Experiences. National Child Abuse Prevention Month recognizes the importance of families and communities working together to strengthen families to prevent child abuse and neglect. Through this collaboration, prevention services and supports help protect children and produce thriving families. Join CFCC in building resilience and raising awareness and prevention of ACEs, like abuse, by participating in one of the free trainings through the Institute for Clinical Training. For a full listing of courses and to register, visit: www.centerforchildcounseling.org/training/.

Since 1999, Center for Child Counseling has been building the foundation for playful, healthful, and hopeful living for children and families in Palm Beach County. Its services focus on preventing and healing the effects of adverse experiences and toxic stress on children, promoting resiliency and healthy family, school, and community relationships. For more information, visit: centerforchildcounseling.org. For schools, organizations, and individuals interested in learning more about the effects of toxic stress and ACEs, please contact info@centerforchildcounseling.org. The Fighting ACEs initiative is made possible with the generous support of the Quantum Foundation and private donors.

Toxic Stress and ACEs

Stress is a strange thing. It’s both a feeling (a sense of being under intense pressure or emotional strain) and a mechanism by which the body’s systems respond to those feelings. We hear opposing statements about stress. Either stress is good for us because it motivates us to succeed, or all the stress in our lives in going to kill us… Which one is true? When it comes to stress, it’s a matter of degree. Yes, a little stress is part of human survival. It focuses us, energizes us, and helps us get things done. On the most primitive levels, feelings of danger trigger our body’s autonomic responses, flooding us with the hormones that once allowed us to flee from predators or enemies, or stand and fight them. Although that dramatic response is seldom needed these days, except in extreme cases of danger or sudden emergency, the stress response mechanism is still in place and vital in the rare instances when we need it. But this powerful system that’s built into every human body can be very dangerous—especially to children—when it’s triggered too frequently.

The body has several reactions to extreme danger or fear:
1.) It can embolden us to stand our ground and fight for our survival (FIGHT)
2.) It can trigger the strength and stamina we need to run away (FLIGHT)
3.) It can cause a state of near inertia in some people, thus the phrase “paralyzed with fear” (FREEZE)

It’s often hard to predict which response we’ll have in any given situation. In many cases, it seems that our body innately chooses for us but, in every case, the presence of danger sets off a series of chemical reactions in the body led by the brain and the endocrine (or glands and hormones) system.

The Immediate Effects of Adrenaline and Cortisol

The presence of danger or even severe unpredictability causes the brain to send a message to the glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. Between them, these two hormones do quite a lot to the body in a very short time:
1.) They increase the heart rate which raises blood pressure
2.) They expand the air passages to the lungs, bringing more oxygen to the body
3.) They rush sugar to the bloodstream
4.) They dilate the pupils of the eyes
5.) They prioritize the sharing of oxygen with muscles to give us power we may not know we had. Think about those news stories where people suddenly display incredible strength to save others, by lifting up a wrecked car to save a child, for example. Thank you, adrenaline!

However, adrenaline and cortisol are emergency measures — the last resort response for extreme situations. You might feel exhausted or quite nauseous after an extreme adrenaline dump, for example. That’s because your body is recovering from the intense activation and takes some time to manage and re-balance all the hormones in the blood. The body is always looking for homeostasis, or balance, where all systems are operating normally. Spikes of adrenaline and cortisol severely disrupt homeostasis and that’s a problem.

It’s true that there are good levels of stress. These are short periods of pressure that push us to complete tasks or focus on something we need to achieve. The stress passes and the body recovers quickly. However, when the stress is prolonged or repeated and there aren’t enough positive resources to counteract their effects, stress becomes dangerous and we call that toxic stress.

ACEs and Hormones

So why all this information on hormones and toxic stress? And how does it all tie back to understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences? Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pioneer in ACEs research, explains that adrenaline and cortisol are great if you encounter a bear in the woods. “The problem,” she says, “is what happens when the bear comes home single night?”

Continuous and repeated activation of the fight or flight response can “burn out” the system which is not intended to be in constant use. Adults suffer physical health issues if adrenaline and cortisol are released too frequently into their bodies. High blood pressure, chronic inflammation, high glucose levels, and low bone density are just a few of the numerous side effects which can result in:
• Anxiety
• Depression
• Digestive problems
• Headaches
• Heart disease
• Sleep problems
• Weight gain
• Memory and concentration impairment

The Effects on Children

For children, the situation is even worse. When little human brains and bodies are growing, there is a lot to do. The brain is developing at its fastest rate. Brain growth surges for the first 3 years of life, expands rapidly for the next ten years, then plateaus in the early 20s. But during the formative years, the body is using resources like the energy from food to accomplish countless tasks – building muscle, growing bone, honing the senses, and developing coordination and communication skills. With only a finite number of resources available, the brain allocates them to the most immediate and vital needs. In the case of constant fear and danger, the adrenaline process is triggered again and again at the expense of developing other parts of the brain and body.

Since survival must come first, that’s where all the energy goes, neglecting cognitive development and impeding those sectors of the brain vital for reasoning, self-regulation, and ultimately behavior and learning ability for the rest of a child’s life. In many cases, the lost ground is difficult, if not impossible, to make up.

A Life of Fear

So, imagine a child living in a home with domestic violence. He lives with daily uncertainty and apprehension. He is on constant alert, waiting for the next tragic event. He is always in fear of witnessing or being the victim of abuse. When it occurs, he suffers extreme terror and a sense of helplessness. He lives his life in a constant state of toxic stress. The healthy development we owe all children has, in a sense, been stolen from him.

Effects of Toxic Stress on the Body Systems of a Child

Nervous System:
Toxic stress disrupts the developing brain, including changes to the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala. This raises the risk of cognitive impairment, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, poor self-regulation, inhibited memory and attention span, and anxiety.

Cardiovascular System:
Toxic stress increases a child’s risk of developing high blood pressure later in life because it elevates levels of inflammation that can damage the arteries. This can lead to heart disease, stroke, and other serious heart issues.

Immune System:
Toxic stress raises the risk of infections and autoimmune diseases due to chronic inflammation and other factors. This can impair the normal development of the body’s immune system.

Endocrine System:
Toxic stress can inhibit the functioning of hormones that regulate growth and development. It can also lead to obesity and impede or accelerate the onset of puberty.

This is what toxic stress looks like: It’s the relentless fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and terror that can cripple a child’s developing brain and body.

ACEs are not just experiences, they are events that cause chemical disruption in the body and result in lifelong mental and physical health issues. When a child is traumatized, abused, or neglected, we are changing who they are at a cellular level and causing damage from which it is very difficult to recover.

But hormones are powerful agents for good, too. A few months ago, this blog series focused on resilience and how to be a buffer for a child. Science shows that the presence of just one positive adult influence in a child’s life can help mitigate against the detrimental effects of ACEs. How does that work on a cellular level?

The Science of Kindness
As well as hormones that protect us, we have hormones that keep us close as a society. Human beings are communal creatures and we’ve developed to co-operate and help one another. Our bodies are even programmed to want to do this because it facilitates our survival imperative: we are stronger together than we are alone.

Acts of kindness often bring us a good, warm feeling. That’s not just an emotion, it’s a chemical reaction in the body. Kindness or altruism releases a chemical in our blood called oxytocin which sends positive, self-affirming signals to our brain. It’s often called the happiness drug. Oxytocin, along with dopamine and serotonin, make up what’s called the Happiness Trifecta. They increase the production of neurochemicals that lift your mood.

Kindness, care, support, warmth, compassion, and love all release these amazing chemicals which have positive health effects like lowered blood pressure, which reduces strain on the veins and arteries and can help stave off heart disease. These positive chemicals are fast-acting, too. In fact, chemicals resulting from a kind or loving interaction can positively influence the brain in as little as 3 seconds!

Remember a time when you felt anxious or depressed. Think how good a simple hug from a loved one felt at that time. That’s oxytocin! There’s a reason it’s called the “cuddle hormone”. Think about how uplifting an unexpected compliment can feel. That’s dopamine! The Happiness Trifecta help both the giver and the receiver to raise their levels of good, happy hormones. And its these hormones that counteract and neutralize the effects of adrenaline and cortisol.

Every time you have an interaction with a child that’s focused on giving something positive to them–even if it’s a high-five, a thumbs up or a big smile–that’s medicine that works as an antidote to ACEs. It hardly seems possible that it’s also doing great things for your own body, too.

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ACEs and Divorce

Between 40 and 50 percent of US marriages end in divorce. Divorce may seem commonplace, even mundane, these days but its prevalence is exactly what makes it such a threat to the healthy mental and physical development of children. While divorce may have become more socially acceptable in recent decades (or even ‘normalized’) the experience for children is almost universally difficult. There is no doubt that the conflict and chronic stress involved in divorce is one of the leading causes of trauma in young children and a very significant ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience).

Even when both parents agree that it’s the best decision, divorce is a confusing, difficult process for adults, let alone children. Divorce introduces new stressors into a child’s life. Whether the separation occurs when they’re three or 13, children worry about what’s happening to their family. Often, children experience feelings of fear, uncertainty, anger, and disappointment. To a child, a divorce can feel like a violation of trust or a broken promise. Most children rely on their homes to be a place of security and safety. Breaking up that home shakes their world to its core. Little brains that are still forming cannot process information in the same way a more reasoning adult can. Children tend to internalize feelings of guilt or self-blame over their parents’ divorce that can affect them for the rest of their lives.

True, there are millions of successful adults who grew up as children of divorce. While ‘pro-marriage’ groups say all divorce has negative impact on children, other studies do seem to indicate that it is preferable for unhappy parents to separate and care individually for their children than for children to be raised in two-parent homes filled with resentment or even rage. A recent British study shows that 82% of children (aged 14 to 22) whose parents divorced  preferred their parents to separate agreeably than to ‘stay for the kids’. Divorce becomes an even more urgent decision when domestic abuse or violence against one or both partners (or the children themselves) is occurring. But there are as many adult children of divorce who are still trying to deal with the emotions and experiences their parents divorce caused them. Some studies indicate that the death of a parent (one of the most significant ACE indicators) may be easier for some children to understand and manage than divorce. In a child’s mind, it is easier to think that a parent died rather than that they left by choice.

Why is divorce such a powerful ACE?

• It introduces intense feelings of uncertainty, often for the first time if it happens very early in a child’s life
• It can cause an environment of chronic stress from anger, bitterness, and fighting
• It may cause economic strain on one of the divorcing parents
• It may separate the child not only from one parent but that parent’s family members who may have been a loving and stable influence
• It may expose a child to a parent’s new partners, which can increase risk of physical or sexual abuse

Of course, resilience levels among children are different. Some children cope and adapt better to divorce than others. Even among siblings experiencing the same divorce environment, the reactions may vary dramatically.

What Are the Warning Signs?

Here are just some of the indicators that your child may be having difficulties coping with your divorce:
• Poor performance or declining grades in school due to inability to focus
• Behavioral problems like attention seeking, “acting out”
• Mood swings or prolonged sadness/depression
• Apathy or loss of interest in places or activities they once enjoyed
• Less interest in spending time with friends
• Unwillingness to cooperate with everyday activities/defiance
• Low self-esteem and withdrawal
• Regressing to younger behaviors in an attempt to return to babyhood, clinginess
• New or increased irrational fears

If you’re dealing with divorce, be aware that even very young children may struggle emotionally. Short-term sadness and anger are normal. If negative emotions and behaviors continue beyond a few months, experts suggest counseling. Organizations like the Center for Child Counseling can provide expert, age-appropriate therapy to help children during and after a divorce. If an ACE like divorce is not addressed adequately, children may be impacted long-term and have a higher likelihood of using drugs and getting involved in criminal behavior later in life.

Adults Recall the Childhood Trauma of Divorce

When adult children of divorce look back on their childhood experiences, many express that it was the stress and conflict that was created by the divorce and not the splitting of parents itself that was so difficult to overcome. Often, children are used as pawns or become weapons in the fight between the separating partners. Asking children to choose between parents is extremely traumatic and brings feelings of anxiety and guilt that can last a lifetime.

Most times, parents go into self-protective, offensive mode and “lawyer up” which, while advised for many reasons, can create an immediately hostile and adversarial environment into which the children are inevitably dragged. The numerous emotions adults feel during a divorce—grief, anger, disappointment, loss of control, fear, loss of status, antagonism, bitterness, sadness, etc.—may also be experienced by children in different ways and for different reasons.…and if adults find it difficult to identify and cope with the emotions being raised, how much harder must it be for a child’s growing brain to process?

Parents who prioritize their children’s needs during a divorce should be viewed as heroes who have managed to look beyond their own emotions and chosen not to put their children at risk for long-term repercussions associated with ACEs.

Minimizing the Impact of the Process

You don’t have to put your own interests/needs last in order to put their children’s interests first. There are different ways to get a divorce. Parents can try to choose a non-adversarial form of divorce, if possible. They can consider mediation or collaborative resolution, if the nature of the divorce allows for it. It’s cheaper and often less traumatic for everyone involved.

Of course, there are as many different kinds of divorce as there are marriages. Some divorces are divisive and going to court may be inevitable. Center for Child Counseling board member and partner at Ward Damon, Eddie Stephens views ACEs from a family court perspective. He sees the trauma in families going through divorce: “There is an incredible amount of dysfunction out there. It is on full display in family courtrooms across the nation. Most professionals are just dealing with symptoms (substance abuse, violence, reckless behaviors), but little is done to address the root cause. In more cases then not, these individuals have suffered through some kind of traumatic experience(s) as a youth. That is the problem that needs to be addressed… not just the symptoms.”

Stephens sees how childhood trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next.

“The goal should be to create a trauma-informed society that appreciates the impact ACEs can have on an individual throughout their lives. If we shifted resources and provided the needed therapy when these kids were young, we would be more likely to stop the generational cycle which would lead to a healthier society. If we don’t embrace that approach as a society, we will continue to spend money on the symptoms while further generations become entrapped in this horrible cycle of dysfunction.”

Try to Have a ‘Grown-Up Divorce’

Children mimic grown-ups’ behavior. They learn what maturity is by watching adults. Parents teach us lessons of sharing, listening, playing fair, and being honest and kind, yet so often these simple rules are broken during a divorce. For a little brain seeking to process these events, it’s all very confusing. Positive or negative world views are being formed at this stage of life and witnessing a mature versus an acrimonious divorce can skew a child’s views on the safety or danger of adult relationships for the rest of their lives.

Mature parents can minimize the impact of their divorce by focusing on some simple guidelines. They may sound like common sense but, in the heat of the moment, practicing these rules can be a challenge. However, it will benefit your child during your divorce and for the rest of their lives.

Communicate:
Wherever possible, communicate decisions about the divorce as a family. Ideally, if all parties are present, the child will understand what is happening and see that both parents still love them. Do not share intimate details of the causes of the divorce; share age-appropriate facts only. Avoid the “blame game” or “he said, she said” story-telling.

Prepare:
Tell your children ahead of time what will be happening and when. Nobody, especially a child, likes to be sidelined by dramatic, unexpected events. Tell your children, as early as possible, about major life events like moving houses, changing schools, etc.

Acknowledge Emotions:
Don’t try to pretend that this decision is the best choice and “better for everybody”. Your child may not feel that way. Empathize with their sadness and fear and allow them to talk about their emotions. Always allow them to talk positively about the other parent.

Prevent Stress:
Try not to expose your child to adult concerns. Ensure they don’t overhear cruel arguments or intimate issues. You need to walk a fine line between keeping them informed and protecting them from age-inappropriate facts, no matter how true.

Provide Structure:
Some of the biggest changes for a child going through a divorce is the loss of significant time with one parent or the other and the constant moving between new living spaces. If you can agree on universal rules that are obeyed at both homes, it will reduce stress for your child. Try to maintain routines and not change/cancel plans at the last minute. This will only add to your child’s anxiety and insecurity.

Keep Loving Buffers in Their Lives:
Your child should never have to choose one parent over the other and that goes for extended family members, too. Your child may be very close to your ex’s siblings (their aunts, uncles, and cousins) and your ex’s parents (their grandparents). These positive influences in their lives can help buffer against the stress of the divorce and minimize the effects of ACEs. Do your best to nurture those relationships and let your child enjoy the stability of still having these good, kind people in their lives.

Use Kind Words:
In the case of biological children you have in common, it helps to remember that your amazing, precious children are 50% your ex. Every bad thing you say about him or her, you’re saying about the children you share, too.

Don’t Force Them to Hide Things From You:
Your children are likely to feel torn or periodically disloyal during and after the divorce. Allow them to share positive thoughts or feelings about your ex. They shouldn’t feel that they have to hide funny stories or happy thoughts about your ex from you. You can find ways to reinforce these in a way that’s both honest and supportive of their feelings:
“I always loved how smart your mom is.”
“You dad always tells the best jokes.”

Love Them Extra:
It goes without saying that during this difficult time you should support your child even more than usual. Smother them with love and encouragement. In the case of an especially hard divorce, you might try to remind yourself that you love your child more than you hate your ex.

There is no reason your divorce should be a childhood trauma that scars your children for life. So many parents manage to get it right and provide two secure, stable and happy homes for their children after their divorce. The ultimate goal is not to “win your divorce” but for your children to have a lifelong positive relationship with both their parents.

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ACEs and Minorities

ACEs and Minorities

ACEs can affect anybody, anywhere. Children experiencing adverse situations, and adults who experienced adversity when they were children, come from all walks of life. ACEs are not confined to any particular race, religion, socio-economic background, or nationality. Any child can experience the sustained toxic stress associated with untreated trauma and suffer negative mental and physical health effects.

The original study on Adverse Childhood Experiences conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and insurance giant Kaiser Permanente in the mid-1990s unearthed this fact early in their research. Their study was conducted among 17,000 middle-class Americans living in Southern California. Even though these original participants were not necessarily representative of the average American, approximately half of them had still experienced at least one ACE.

Subsequent US-based ACE studies, including the largest study conducted to date between 2011 and 2014, have consistently shown the same general prevalence of ACEs among American children. This far larger sample group, and the data accumulated from many studies, highlighted some startling differences in who is most likely to suffer from ACEs. Children from minority backgrounds—whether based on race, socio-economic standing, or sexual orientation—were at distinctly higher risk of ACEs and their devastating life-long effects than middle-class white children.

At-Risk Minority Groups

Children of different races and ethnicities across the country do not experience the same exposure to ACEs. In the United States, 61% of black children and 51% of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE, compared to 40% of white children. In every part of the country, the lowest rate of ACEs was among Asian children. In most areas, the population most at risk was black children.

Geographic regions also showed different results. Compared to the national average of 1 in 10 children experiencing and ACE score of 3 or more, in 5 states—Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, New Mexico, and Ohio—1 in 7 children had experienced the same.

In Florida, 49% of children between birth and 17 reported no ACEs. 26% reported 1 ACE, 14% reported 2 ACEs and 10% reported 3 or more ACEs. This is generally in line with national averages.

The high occurrence of ACEs among minorities can likely be attributed to the uneven provision of services and opportunities in minority neighborhoods. This inequity is caused by social determinants of health. The World Health Organization describes the social determinants of health as “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power, and resources.” These result in the unfair but avoidable differences in health status seen between different neighborhoods, zip codes, and even states. The social determinants of health are responsible for most health and other social disparities.

ACEs Clusters

ACEs are the result of not only situations children face within their own homes or families but the general circumstances in which they live. Because the impact of ACEs is cumulative, we see high rates in areas where several detrimental situations are occurring simultaneously. For example, a neighborhood where there is a high rate of unemployment, few educational opportunities, a strong gang presence, and high rates of domestic violence is likely to produce children who are suffering from clusters of ACEs. Because of this, ACE studies now look at the cumulative effects of ACEs rather than the individual effects of any one specific ACE.

ACEs caused by the community environments where a child is raised go hand-in-hand with the ACEs occurring in individual homes and within families.

So, ACEs aren’t a racial issue; they’re a societal one. People with low incomes and limited education are also more likely to experience ACEs, as are people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or are questioning their gender or sexuality (the LGBTQ community). According to numerous research papers, including one published by the US National Library of medicine/National Institutes of Health, this group has a dramatically higher chance of experiencing childhood trauma, probably the result of lack of understanding among family members, the taboo of discussing these issues in some communities, and the stigma often imposed by society at large.

Helping children in these particular minority groups involves cultural sensitivity and the kind of community education that takes a long time to penetrate established ways of thinking. For many children confronting overwhelming adversity and inequity, buffering relationships are needed. It is essential to address the rejection and hardships they are statistically likely to experience in their lives - with a mental health professional or caring mentor or teacher who understands the impact of these experiences. Success among marginalized groups involves developing strong internal fortitude in children and encouraging them to eventually find accepting, supportive friends, if these relationships are not available at home or school.

It’s clear that minorities, children living in economically challenged neighborhoods, and members of traditionally marginalized groups are in particular need of support in the fight against ACEs.

Solutions

Now that we know that certain groups are more likely to experience ACEs, what can we do? As individuals and communities, we can channel our efforts. A high ACE score does not predestine a child for poor life outcomes, but it does identify that child as vulnerable. Since the fight against ACEs has two primary weapons, namely 1.) building resilience and 2) promoting healthy relationships (the internal and external supports, if you like), we can provide two practical forms of assistance to targeted groups.

Building Internal Coping Skills

To build resilience in children, they need to be taught how to self-regulate and cope. Anybody can help a child to develop these vital skills. Simple techniques like providing encouragement, supporting special interests, and even just taking notice of a child is, in some small way, building self-esteem and promoting independence and strength. Children will copy the actions of adults, especially those they admire. Showing children how to calmly and fairly negotiate, compromise, demonstrate empathy, and look at all sides of an issue can help them establish a new way of thinking. Remember that children mimic both positive and negative behaviors, so it’s important to carefully consider the messages you’re sending with your behaviors and choices.

Providing External Support Systems

Of course, the most at-risk children may need professional assistance to build effective coping skills and resilience. Offering age-appropriate early intervention and mental health care in childcare centers and elementary schools (especially in at-risk neighborhoods) is the obvious place to start. Center for Child Counseling, with support from local funders including Quantum Foundation, has developed a comprehensive model for childcare centers and schools, including trauma-informed education for all caregivers, classroom-based mindfulness activities, and direct services for children identified as needing assistance. The model focuses on transforming the school environment, which in the long-term, impacts all students.

Another approach is to provide supplemental support systems in at-risk neighborhoods. Many highly-respected nonprofits do just this by creating places where children can meet, play, and be in contact with positive, caring role models and mentors. Local organizations like Urban Youth Impact, the YMCA, Compass, and Big Brothers Big Sisters are all examples of nonprofits in Palm Beach County  focused on creating positive relationships that may be absent from the home.

And, as always, every one of us can play a role in the fight against ACEs by advocating for children, encouraging every child we encounter in our lives, and being on the alert for children who may need the support and help of a caring, ACEs-aware adult.

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ACEs: How to Be a Buffer for a Child

Research shows that just one positive adult can dramatically improve the outlook for a child suffering from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Learn how your simple actions can provide a buffer against toxic stress and change the course of a child's life.

Remember when you were a child. Think back. Remind yourself how vulnerable you were. The world was big; you were little. Was there ever a time when someone protected you? For many of us, it was an older sibling, maybe a big brother, who stepped in, literally, and came between us and a bully or danger. Do you remember how safe that made you feel? How exhilarating it was, in your moment of need, to know that you could rely on help to arrive. When you hurt yourself or had your feelings hurt, you probably ran to a parent who gave you a caring hug and soothed you. Without consciously knowing it, those of us with these sorts of memories were running to a buffer, looking for the concern and protection every single child needs and deserves…but which not every child gets.

For millions of children worldwide, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) make growing up a challenge at best and a chaotic nightmare at worst. The brain of a child growing up in a home with attentive parents will create a world view where adults as safe, predictable, and a source of love and sustenance. But the brain of a child living in a home plagued by domestic violence or neglect will create a world view where adults are unreliable and a source of fear and pain. Children carry these ideas with them and they color all future relationships. Depending on their experiences and outlook, children can grow to become nurturing, invested adults or mistrustful, suspicious and withholding.

During this blog series, we’ve learned about ACEs, their tragic lifelong consequences for individuals and communities, and how we must urgently address this greatest of all public health crises. Rather than being overwhelmed by the statistics though, let’s focus on hope because healing is possible.

As a society, we now know more about ACEs than ever before. That knowledge empowers us. On a system level in Palm Beach County, we’ve mobilized the community to fight ACEs, but the truly encouraging news is that you don’t need to be an expert to help turn a child’s life around. Of course, severely traumatized children might need the professional help and compassion provided by skilled therapists like those at the Center for Child Counseling, but for many of the others the answer is relatively straight-forward. The answer is you.

As someone who loves and cares for a child, or who interacts with children often, it is vital to be ACEs educated and trauma informed. Simply by reading this educational blog series, you’ve demonstrated an interest in the subject. You’re already equipped to play your small but vital part in the fight.

Adjust Your Approach
Being trauma-informed really means adjusting our thinking and the way we respond and react to a child’s behavior. Instead of asking: “What’s wrong with you?” the focus should be: “What happened to you?” This changes our attitude to consider what the child has experienced rather than the resulting behaviors which may be frustrating. Follow-up questions will help get to the cause of the problem, questions like: “When did this happen?”, “How long has it been going on?” and “Who has been there to help you since this happened?” This way of approaching children helps to avoid re-traumatizing already traumatized people. It creates a safe, non-judgmental place where children feel secure enough to share their experiences and ask for help without fear of punishment or retribution.

Be a Buffer
Supportive, loving caregivers can buffer the effects of toxic environmental stress. There are many ways you can support a child with ACEs. Studies show that a positive, nurturing relationship with even one engaged adult can help a child cope with adversity. Consider how you interact with children—your own and other people’s—and focus on being loving, kind, and genuinely interested in them.

Easy Ways to be a Buffer
In the bestselling novel “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, a devoted nanny repeatedly tells the young child in her care: “You are kind. You are smart. You are important.” Let that be your mantra when helping a child who has experienced ACEs. Whether you’re a teacher, neighbor, coach, community volunteer, or friend of the family, being a buffer means employing several different approaches aimed at:
• Reducing stress
• Building positive relationship
• Strengthening life skills

Here are some practical, real-world ways you can combat the toxic stress caused by ACEs.

Celebrate:
When we celebrate a child’s achievements and challenges, both big and small, and affirm who they are as individuals, we support the development of their self-identity and remind them of their competence, importance, and lovability. When we acknowledge their birthdays, graduations, or everyday accomplishments like completing their homework, making a new friend, or doing chores, we help children build positive self-esteem. It may be something as simple as a clap, a smile, or a ‘thumbs up’. These simple gestures are expressions of support that can build self-confidence and help a child to thrive.

Comfort = Safety:
Children who have experienced trauma or toxic stress need comfort. Often, they need help to manage their emotions and to calm themselves down. Practicing relaxation, patience, and emotional regulation may help them connect with their feelings. Creating a safe environment is one of the most valuable components in re-establishing a sense of security and stability for a child. Whether the issue seems big or small, offer reassurance and always reinforce your commitment to be there for them. Sometimes it can be difficult to stay calm and supportive when a child exhibits the behaviors associated with toxic stress, but a measured response tells them that you are solid and reliable.

Help Children Collaborate:
Science shows that children who have been exposed to toxic stress may struggle to appreciate others’ perspectives. They may lack a sense of belonging. They may not have the skills or the know-how to reach out. And they may need help controlling their emotions, working through their problems, and gaining independence. Every day there are opportunities to collaborate or work with children towards common goals. With simple examples, you can teach problem solving and basic negotiating techniques to deal with conflict. When children learn to collaborate fairly, they feel like part of a team rather than isolated.

Grow Optimism:
We’ve already learned that a young child’s growing brain has plasticity – it’s still forming neural pathways and those pathways can be altered for the better. Brain science shows that we can actually train our brains to be more optimistic and hopeful about the future by practicing positive self-talk. You can reinforce this kind of positive brain growth in the children you know.

Don’t Just Hear…Listen:
It may sound easy, but listening is a skill we all need to practice. For all children, especially those who have experienced traumatic stress and violence, a patient and receptive adult who listens can help them feel safe and valued. Active listening means paying careful attention to what is being said, rather than simply hearing it. Listening is the foundation of learning and understanding what a child is trying to communicate. It shows care and concern. Listening to a child and teaching them how to listen helps them communicate and see situations from other people’s perspective – a key to empathy. Whether children are sharing happiness, sadness, anger, or fear, having someone truly listen to them matters.

Hold on to Healthy Relationships:
Often, when parents separate or divorce, it becomes a challenge to help kids maintain healthy contact with grandparents, supportive adults, and extended family members. One key to reducing stress is making the effort to maintain contact with these positive influences. It’s never a bad idea to let your children interact with people who truly love them…sometimes it means setting aside personal feelings in the best interest of the child.

Inspire:
To inspire someone means to lift them up with your words. Children need constant encouragement to recognize and reach their full potential. They need help identifying dreams and working towards them. Children who have witnessed violence and experienced traumatic stress can become negative, often have a low sense of self-worth, expect to be unsuccessful, and fail to foresee a positive future. But caring adults can help children reverse these negative responses. You can help inspire a child by identifying their strengths and natural talents and by connecting them to programs that help develop self-confidence.

Those who spend more time with children, like teachers, caregivers and, of course, parents have a greater opportunity to provide the tools that can really have a positive impact. Increasingly, schools, sports clubs and community events aimed at children are including elements of mindfulness training, self-care, and self-regulation activities in their work. But every one of us, even those of us who only have time to give a child a quick high-five, can consider it a privilege that we are contributing to that child’s resilience, health, and wellbeing.

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