April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and an important time to remember that we can work together, in our families, and in our communities, to prevent child abuse.
Childhood trauma is an unfortunate reality for many kids today. A lot of research has gone into understanding not just the causes for trauma, but also its long-term effect on children’s lives and health, all the way into adulthood. Public health staff refer to these traumatic events as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs include:
- Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
- Physical and emotional neglect.
- Witnessing domestic violence.
- Living with a parent or caregiver who is mentally ill, depressed or suicidal.
- Having a family member with an alcohol or other substance use disorder.
- Loss of a parent through death, divorce, separation or abandonment.
- Having a family member who is incarcerated.
About one third of adults in Thurston County experienced three or more ACEs during childhood. Aside from recognizing each of these events as stressful and traumatic for children in their own right, the more ACEs a person experienced as a child, the higher their risk for a wide variety of health issues later in life, including:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Cigarette smoking.
- Heart disease.
- Interpersonal violence.
- Liver disease.
- Sexually transmitted disease.
- Intravenous drug use.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers a wide variety of resources for kids, parents, educators, and others looking for help in identifying, responding to, and recovering from abuse. National Public Radio published an in-depth article about ACEs where you can learn what they mean for kids and families.
While looking at in individual’s number of ACEs can provide information and insight, it doesn’t consider potential positive influences that help build resilience in children and youth, and help to buffer them from impacts of trauma.
For the past five years, the members of the Education and Resilience Action Team of Thurston Thrives have been working together to design and implement collective impact strategies to build resiliency in kids and families.
Science also is beginning to look at HOPE (Health Outcomes of Positive Experience) as a way to combat the effects of ACEs. According to a report by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, “just one caring, safe relationship early in life gives any child a much better shot at growing up healthy.”
The report goes on to say that “the positive childhood experiences with the greatest protective impact for those in the highest risk group (four or more ACEs) included feeling as a child that their family stood by them in hard times and that they had someone to talk with about difficult feelings. Feeling supported by friends during childhood also was strongly associated with fewer negative health and behavior outcomes for adults with more than three ACEs.”
Some great ways to build protective influences around children and youth include: eating meals together as a family; volunteering as a mentor; limiting screen time and spending time doing family activities; attending parenting classes and community events; and developing a support network for yourself and your family.
In Thurston County there are great local resources that offer parents support. These include the Nurse-Family Partnership at Thurston County Public Health and Social Services, the Family Support Center, Family Education and Support Services, and many others.
In addition, 1, 2, 3, Care has produced an important handout for parents of children with ACEs, which is available online.
While helping children to deal with trauma and its effects on their lives can be very complicated and difficult, it is reassuring to realize that positive relationships and events matter too. Reaching out, listening, and engaging with one another in thoughtful ways is more than just a token effort. It matters.
Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.