One of the things that revolutionized my parenting style was discovering the studies of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The term stems from a groundbreaking study in the late 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control and the Kaiser Permanente Foundation. The ACEs that researchers have studied include domestic violence, substance abuse, and parental divorce or separation. Later studies have included the effects of community violence, bullying, and living in foster care. More research has shown us significant correlation between childhood trauma and behavior problems.
If our children come to us as foster or adopted children from bad situations or as stepchildren because a parent died, we already know that they have suffered trauma. If we are stepparents because of divorce, however, we tend to overlook their loss. Divorce is so common that we forget how much damage it can inflict on children. Numerous studies have shown that children of divorce are at higher risk for impaired academic achievement, problematic conduct, lack of psychological adjustment, low self-esteem, and difficulty in social relationships.
Just as with the ACEs scores, these studies show only high correlation, not causation. Nothing is predetermined. Yet, we often overlook even the risk, telling ourselves that children are resilient and will adjust to the situation. It is true that children can be resilient and can adjust, but their new reality always comes at a price.
I am not counseling despair. Children can overcome problems, but we need to be aware of what those problems are. The vast majority of the time, we were not there when our children’s worlds fell apart. In order to help them, we have to understand how that trauma affected them.
We also have to recognize that the bad attitudes that we see may be the results of that trauma. Children who have suffered toxic levels of stress have a difficult time handling normal life stressors. Your child may melt down from what seems to us to be a simple challenge, such as a bad grade or correction about how they do a chore. One common symptom that I have seen is emotional immaturity. It seems that trauma short-circuits and delays parts of normal emotional development. It can be very disconcerting, and frustrating, to see a child regressing to a younger age when they hit a roadblock.
Understanding that these behaviors can be the result of trauma helped me immensely. Realizing that the children might not be completely responsible for their reactions, for example, helped me be much more patient. Of course, understanding bad behavior is not the same as excusing it. Our children need to learn the best way to do tasks or how to overcome a bad grade. And the calendar does not stop just because they are not emotionally ready to handle responsibility. How we deal with them, however, changes when the root of their behavior is trauma instead of just a bad attitude. In the next few posts, I’ll discuss what social science research taught me about how to help children who have suffered ACEs and other trauma.