Parenting children of divorce or other childhood traumas is daunting, but the good news is that positive experiences can help neutralize bad ones. A recently-published study looked at almost 500 children over 10 years, starting in their preteen years. It found that children with positive experiences during their adolescence had fewer symptoms of trauma — such as depression, risky sexual behavior, and substance abuse — 10 years later. The more positive experiences, the fewer such symptoms.
The study looked at a variety of counter-ACES. During the 10 years of the study, researchers regularly surveyed children about 7 experiences:
• support from teachers in school,
• feeling happy in school,
• high self-esteem,
• having beliefs that provided meaning, purpose, and impact on their decisions,
• feeling connected to at least one parent,
• having a positive peer relationship with a best friend, and
• having had a good time the previous week.
It asked parents about 3 experiences:
• mealtime or weekend routines,
• whether the parent knew about the teenager’s whereabouts and activities, and,
• whether the teen had good neighbors and a safe neighborhood.
This study is in line with other previous studies and offers helpful guidance to those of us raising foster or stepchildren. It is important to remember that it is merely guidance. These are 10 variables, not requirements, and there are many ways to implement them.
For example, I have never been able to stick to a schedule for family dinners. My career is demanding, and I am at the mercy of judges and client emergencies. I rarely can predict what time I will be home or how much energy I will have for cooking. The only time I have been able to prepare evening meals on a regular schedule was during a short period of near-unemployment early in my marriage.
But I still was able to find some routines for my children. When I was single, I learned to plan dinner-and-a-movie on Fridays. The routine gave all of us time to decompress from our respective weeks and to have something to look forward to. When I married, my stepsons were older and usually had some activity of their own on Friday evenings. But we went to lunch every Sunday after church, and I always learned something new by listening to their conversations. The important point is not to set a particular schedule, but to have some routine that your children can count on and look forward to.
Many of the other variables are out of our control. We can encourage our children to have friends and try to create an environment where their friends feel comfortable, but only our children can forge friendships. We can advocate for our children in school, but we cannot force teachers to be supportive. In those cases, we have to concentrate on what we can control. For example, parents who cannot afford a good neighborhood still can work to keep up with their teen’s whereabouts and activities.
Most of these counter-ACEs are a normal part of parenting children, and many of us may have heard them already. Still, it is good to know which of our actions can have the most impact. No one can do it all, but we can concentrate on a few key areas as we try to help our children heal.