Positive Childhood Experiences: What are they, why are they important, and aren't we already doing them?
We spend so much time talking about ACES – adverse childhood experiences – in a world that seems to have no shortage. It is, frankly, exhausting. Children, or any group of people, are more than their suffering, and yet that’s what we first go to in order to identify them.
Our children, and ourselves, deserve better. So how do we reframe this?
Simply, we can focus on joy. Clinically, we can call that “Positive Childhood Experiences.” CPEs are all the moments between traumatic events, that hopefully are robust, and create an intrinsic understanding for youth that “the bad will pass.” You can imagine that this is complicated when children are being shot at in schools on a near-weekly basis.
I also want to say: you are a good parent and caregiver. I heard the worry in your chest, as you read this. Absolutely, there are people that abuse their children, and that is not to downplay how people in families can harm children or others, such as familial trafficking and other child abuse. Take this into context and perspective, that we can do the best we can within our contexts, that we can still cause harm, and that we can and should be accountable to our actions and those we harm.
I know some people say “I don’t need to apologize to my kid!” But what does that teach the child? They deserved the hurt? That they don’t need to apologize others? Will that lead them into situations they need help through, and what happens then?
I also don’t want to say that it is sunshine and rainbows all the time. It’s the comfort of sitting with discomfort, of having difficult conversations, and realizing that it *is* okay for you and the kiddo. It’s learning how to regulate intense emotions. A child is not born with those skills, and many of us had to learn the hard way, because those raising us – parents, caregivers, teachers, etc. - didn’t help us co-regulate either.
CPEs are about “the bad will pass, and we will be okay.” It’s about creating a firm sense of self, that can sway when the ground trembles, but always comes back upright afterwards. And if we do collapse, that that isn’t the end, that with help from others – if we know how to ask – we can be rebuilt stronger, learning from what happened. We often think of self as how we relate to others: parent, child, employee, employer, friend, etc. Who are we when all of that goes away?
There are some very clinical, static steps we can take to this, but like all things, it’s about building and maintaining relationships with people, first and foremost, ourselves, and then to whom we relate. You cannot expect a child to know what to do, if they’ve never seen it modeled for them.
I am not saying it is easy. No. But I do know the profound joy of hearing an child’s unburdened laughter, that makes my younger self weep in grief and joy.
Remember, you once were a child, and so “Positive Childhood Experiences” aren’t just about the children in your care, be them family or community, but also for yourself. We deserve it.
We’ve provided a list of things to consider, and we want you to know, we are here with you.
POSITIVE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES
Positive childhood experiences are relationships and environments which create stable environments in which children can thrive and grow into healthy adults.
Some ways of creating PCE’s as parents, caregivers, and professionals:
- Validate emotions, especially the intense ones, without diminishing. Learning we can be safe through our emotions helps us with emotional self-regulation.
- Using social, emotional learning approaches in the school setting.
- Actively listening when children are speaking, especially when discussing sensitive topics.
- Encouraging children to speak up if they are being harassed, bullied, or abused.
- Make every effort to make children feel safe and supported in their home environments.
- Establish strong, trusting relationships between parents/caregivers and their children.
- Educating parents to utilize community and online resources to strengthen and support their parenting skills.
- Teach children about effective conflict resolution strategies that avoid violence.
- Provide educational opportunities to improve parental/caregiver confidence, while providing support to parents and caregivers in making choices that enhance the lives of their children.
- Provide education about cycles of abuse, and tools, resources, and support to break it.
Opposite of PCEs are ACEs:
ACE (adverse childhood experiences) are potentially traumatic experiences that occur to children during developmentally formative years, tend to have a cumulative impact (risk cascade) without support, generally ages 1-17. Another way to think of ACEs, are events, individual or recurring, that put excessive stress on an individual, either directly or as result from someone else’s struggle with the stress.
- Racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination.
- Childhood physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse
- Witnessing violence at home or in the community
- Financial hardship
- Food insecurity
- Housing insecurity and homelessness
- Lack of access to mental and medical healthcare, for parent or youth
- Substance misuse and abuse in the home
- Incarceration of parent(s) and other family members
- Other instability, perhaps related to divorce or separation. (Divorce/separation are not inherently traumatic)
Regular and consistent exposure to ACE’s impact an individual’s trauma-response system (flight, fight, freeze, fawn), making the “chaotic” normal, which in turn can result in children more susceptible to violence such as human trafficking, and many other negative outcomes in their teen years and through adulthood.
In addition, ACE’s can contribute to long term health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and other, typically chronic, conditions.
ACEs often lead young people to develop survival-based coping mechanisms, that help for the immediate situation but often can become barriers to living the lives we want. Some things that can – but do not always – happen:
- Substance misuse and abuse, used to numb the pain of trauma.
- Unhealthy relationship to sex and communicating health needs with sexual partners.
- Developmental impacts that can lead to struggling in certain employment settings not prepared to support people who have experienced trauma.
- Close friendship and relationships can bring up traumatic memories/experiences, making maintaining relationships difficult.
- Difficulty processing information and difficulty in some structured settings can impact learning in school settings and increase probability of dropping out of school.
Breaking the cycle is possible:
Providing educational opportunities and community support for parents are ways to strengthen parental skills while letting them know they are not alone in the process.
Managing stress is about boundaries and emotional self-regulation, something that we often learn the hard way. Providing sessions and resources on skills to help parents, caregivers, and youth to co-regulate and self-regulate complex emotions and normalizing the struggle can be helpful.
Offering effective, and culturally responsive and specific ways to handle everyday challenges and issues helps individuals feel seen in their unique circumstances.
Encourage parents to seek out and use community and online resources for support and personal growth.
Guide parents to use positive accountability strategies, and away from corporeal punishment.
Allow for the opportunity to fail. We will not always get it right, and that is okay. We need to know we have a same place to come back to when we get it wrong, and that we are provided the trust and autonomy to make our own decisions. The risk to should be proportionate to age and accessibility, and allow for learning from success and failure.
And perhaps most importantly, meet the child – and whomever you are working with – where they are at. Stopping harmful patterns and learning new skills is a skill in and of itself. Showing patience with the people we are supporting teachings them patience with themselves, reducing the likelihood of being caught in guilt and shame, unable to move forward.
Lifting and encouraging are important to keeping communication open, especially with children. If someone thinks there going to be in trouble and punished, are they likely to tell you what happened, or ask for help? Closed-off communication and damaged relationships can lead to seeking validation elsewhere, which sometimes can be from people that would exploit the want to “be heard.”
If you are looking for more information or support, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Health and Development in Young Children
Authors: Jeffrey W. Anthony, CHES; Stacy Kallman, RN, BSN, FNE, SANE-A