Adverse Childhood Experiences (read: trauma) are recognized factors for lifetime health and well being. You can read about them here… and if you don’t know your score, you can take a brief quiz here. In general, the higher the ACE score, the more risk factors are present for both physical and emotional health outcomes. The CDC reports around 61% of adults have a score of at least 1. I mention this because, being aware of your score can not only help you navigate your own health but it can also identify areas where you may need to make proactive changes for the next generation. (We call this cycle breaking)
I encourage you to look over the links above but a summary is that ACEs are forms of abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences of early life and they are both relational and environmental. They also only encompass some early life trauma, there are less common forms that can impact you as well without adding to your ACE score. The potential consequences are increased risks for things like heart disease, cancer and other physical concerns as well as increased mental health conditions such as depression… they can also lead to further abuse or neglect of the next generation if left unmanaged. The good news is that they are preventable and we can change the course.
Environmental factors are not always preventable on a familial level which is why social support is key. However, relational factors can be controlled more as they are on a personal level. The way we interact with each other, with children, directly impacts the risks for ACEs. If you interact with children in any capacity, it is absolutely necessary to establish a trauma informed interaction style.
Why do I say trauma informed for everyone and not just children actively healing from trauma? Because trauma is genetic. Our DNA carries the trauma of the generations before us and therefore even in the best of circumstances, it is possible to have a baseline need for trauma informed interactions. The most basic way to describe trauma informed parenting specifically is that it creates feelings of relational safety. Safety is felt through being heard, through not being “punished” (this is different from natural or the occasional correlated consequence), not being physically punished, being spoken to with positive regard (no put downs or shaming), and having needs consistently met. Another important aspect is to model emotional regulation through various techniques.
Trauma informed parenting would fall under the heading of authoritative parenting. Quick note as even after all these years of being around the language, I still have to stop and process through the difference between authoritarian parenting (obedience and contorll based, highly strict expectations, low levels of compassion, affection and listening, aggressive tone) and authoritative (high compassion, affection & listening, developmentally appropriate expectations, calm assertive tone). Authoritative parenting goes by many names such as gentle parenting, respectful parenting, positive parenting, conscious parenting and holistic parenting, but the important factors are still developmentally appropriate expectations with necessary supports and high levels of compassion and affection.
It sounds easy enough on paper but we know that is not always easy in the thick of the day to day, especially if that is not how we were parented… and maybe we haven’t been ready to acknowledge that reality. It may be difficult to separate how we were parented from the core of who we are and therefore how we react, but it is imperative. I cannot definitively tell you why you were parented the way you were (speaking to those who did not have an authoritative style) but I can tell you that you can love and respect your parents while also acknowledging harm. It is possible to give our parents grace that they didn’t know any better or have better resources while also being vulnerable to the impact that had on us through our growing up.
Developing an awareness and understanding of our ACE score and the parenting style our parents used is the first step to preventing any harm from being carried onto the next generation. Awareness is the first step to rewriting our family’s DNA to be one without generational trauma. The next step is making sure the child inside of us is allowed to be safe and treated with unconditional positive regard… so that they can extend the same to their children. Doing the heavy internal work required is hard on its own but many of us do not begin until we are also charged with growing up tiny humans… and in such doing no harm. If you’re already doing so, I see you and if you are starting at awareness, I’m here for you too. This is hard and important.
Please also remember, that perfection is not the goal. You and me and all of us are going to screw it up sometimes, but there is a difference between stumbling along the way and patterns of behavior. Stumbling is an important part of learning to walk and then run… and getting back up (apologizing, trying again, relationship repair) is vital. So please let go of the parent guilt and any of your past mistakes, shame only serves as a weight keeping us down. Today is a new day. Make any necessary reparations and charge forward free of the guilt of things we didn’t know better than to do. You know now, so move forward.
- Prioritize your healing (if necessary) and mental health so you can stay regulated under pressure. Utilize calming techniques and coping skills, and if you don’t currently have any, find ones that feel natural. The right one is the one that helps you remain under control.
- Allow yourself and your children/children in your care to feel the full range of their emotions. Remember all emotions are valid and acceptable but not every behavior is allowable or acceptable.
- Find a specific authoritative method that you connect with or bits and pieces of lots, whatever feels natural for your family. The goal is connection, authenticity and realistic expectations. (I will put some that I personally like to recommend below)
- Find a support system. This may or may not be your family, some families are willing to learn and grow together and others will mock your efforts… if it is the latter, seek support elsewhere, but know that it is out there and you’re not alone.
- Try. Make a mistake. Repair. Learn. Try Again.
Remember that parenting, or rather discipline has absolutely nothing to do with controlling our kids and absolutely everything to do with controlling ourselves. It will be a journey but the benefits are many. I’ve been on this journey for a few years now and I am amazed at how it has positively impacted our family and specifically my child. No child is going to behave perfectly and that is not the goal but if they grow to be kind, empathetic and emotionally mature humans, that will be enough. We only know how to be those things by having them modeled to us (at least typically, sometimes kids just grow up that way in spite of their models).
This is hard and you can do hard things. The power to shape the next generation and reduce their ACEs is within our reach. Together, we can make the world better by the act of wholly loving each other.
- Specific Methods
- Books (I’ve personally read the bolded ones but have others on my list)
- Unconditional Parent- Alfie Kohn
- Raising Human Beings- Dr. Ross Greene
- Beyond Behaviors- Mona DelaHooke
- Jesus, The Gentle Parent- LR Knost
- The Gentle Parent- LR Knost
- The Whole Brain Child- Daniel J. Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson
- There’s Got to Be a Better Way- Dr. Becky Bailey