Children benefit from boundaries, routine, and rules, but with adults shouldering life’s burdens, childhood is the time to feel carefree. Unscheduled time to lie in the grass and watch the clouds, dig in the dirt, collect rocks, catch grasshoppers, play in the water, ride bikes, play chase, and giggle, giggle, giggle fills with joy the few years kids have before responsibilities loom. Feeling the security that all needs will be met allows children to relax and play without worry.
Carefree is a feeling that may be rare or missing from a childhood filled with adverse experiences. This understandably affects how those children view the world when they reach adulthood.
If you’ve never experienced a feeling of burden-less security, you cannot return to that feeling as a motivator when times are tough. If your environment has never felt safe, you cannot fully relax. When a period of calm is the regular prelude to disaster, “good” times bring a feeling of impending doom. When parents or caregivers did not protect and provide, you will not trust others or institutions to protect and provide.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can create a winding road to thriving as an adult. Yes, sometimes it may feel like a spiral! Last week when I said we’d come back to the ways the ACEs study plays in the real world, I wasn’t kidding. I took a quick version of the test. I score a 4 which puts me in the high-risk category.
This came as no surprise. As of this moment, I am healthy and medication free. But I do have celiac disease which is an autoimmune disorder that must be managed. I also have emotional flashbacks and certain triggers that cause me intestinal distress, plus elevated heart rate and blood pressure. These events have become less frequent and more controllable through practicing yoga. The closest diagnosis I have found for my symptoms is complex PTSD which is not a recognized diagnosis at all.
What you call how I feel is not as important to me as having techniques to move from distress to balance and slowly, but surely healing all of those old wounds so that the triggers have nothing to trigger. I’ve made great progress along this road.
I mention this to let you know I have firsthand experience with the wounds created by adverse childhood experiences. I know how it feels to move through life braced for attack. I have often felt defective and unloveable. What I believe about myself intellectually simply can’t be squared with how I feel inside.
There is what feels like a never-ending well of sadness & grief within my solar plexus. I am not depressed, but I find it difficult to access joy. And I cannot remember ever feeling carefree!
I come from a family that is well-respected in the community. A college board room bears my father’s name and a Nature Conservancy pavilion, my mother’s. My grandfather was a Shriner and county judge. Both he and my father were business owners and deacons in a Southern Baptist Church.
I was ranked #3 in my graduating class, was Junior Class President, a member of the popular girl’s social club, and left high school early with college scholarship in hand. I excelled in that environment as well. I graduated in four years with a grade point of 3.86 in spite of changing schools twice. See any red flags there? Probably not. There were some, but not the kind that tend to register for intervention or assistance.
Hidden abuse and neglect are all around you. The products of abuse and neglect are your friends, neighbors, bosses, co-workers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, judges, psychologists, social workers, teachers, policemen, CEOs, and government officials. Many are living “successful” lives.
Some have healed their wounds. Some contribute to a toxic environment wherever they go. Most likely this is not their intent. They are moving through the world in the best way they know how, but some simply don’t care whether they harm you. Your distress will not even register.
A child with a parent or caregiver who does not see and/or respond to his/her distress, or deliberately creates it, cannot securely bond with that parent or caregiver. “The behaviour of parents, and of anyone else in a care-giving role, is complementary to attachment behaviour. The roles of the caregiver are first to be available and responsive as and when wanted and, secondly, to intervene judiciously should the child or older person who is being cared for be heading for trouble. Not only is it a key role but there is substantial evidence that how it is discharged by a person’s parents determines in great degree whether or not he grows up to be mentally healthy.” – John Bowlby, pioneer of attachment theory, in a 1976 lecture entitled The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. 1
With evidence that adverse childhood experiences affect long-term physical health and contribute to chronic disease plus evidence that ACEs additionally affect mental health, it seems imperative that we develop mindful parenting to enhance secure attachment and minimize childhood trauma. The focus for most existing programs are low income, low education level, and minority populations.
What about the middle class and above, educated parents who wound their children within families that escape scrutiny? How do we identify and help those children? How do we re-educate these parents regarding parenting?
I would argue this is as important to health and safety as having babies sleep on their backs, wear helmets when biking, and ride in car seats. I don’t want to suggest that we should individually interfere in families except in extreme cases, but changing the norms regarding healthy parenting is essential. It will require the combined effort of researchers, early childhood experts, mental health and medical professionals, parenting experts, internet influencers, and courageous parents to effect significant change.
I’m ready to get the process started. As parents, we cannot identify areas for improvement without an assessment of the current situation. Following is a list of items for parents to consider when evaluating a family environment.
It will require courage to explore these questions from the point of view of your child’s experience. Please keep in mind that only a clear view of the current situation will be helpful. Viewing a situation like you wish it were or hope it will become will not lead to improvement. The overall goal is to improve the health of our children by reducing adverse childhood experiences.
If you are a parent of thinking of becoming one, ask yourself:
Do I have time to devote to holding, comforting, and connecting with my child each day?
My ex-husband used to say having children was not going to change his life. He was right, it didn’t. But it sure changed mine. If you behave like he did and do not have a partner who sees and/or fills in the gaps, your child will not receive adequate responsive parenting.
Am I reliable?
A child must be able to consistently rely on you to provide and protect. If they cannot, it will affect attachment and trust. Repeated unfulfilled promises are detrimental. When a parent promises to call and does not, it hurts. When a parent forgets to show up for a soccer game he/she promised to attend, it hurts. All of us slip from time to time. It is a pattern of unreliability that is harmful.
Do I believe that the highest and best use of my parenting time and energy is to be responsive to my child’s needs?
Children need to feel seen. Children need to know someone will come and comfort them when they are distressed. Children need to feel valued. Children need to know food will be provided when they are hungry. They need to have fluids available when they are thirsty. Children need to have access to a bathroom when they need to go. Children need to feel included as an important part of the family unit.
I know it sounds like I’m just stating the obvious. I know that if you love your children, you most likely believe this is an automatic part of parenting and you may be rolling your eyes. But in my family–the one that looked wonderful on the outside–if I wanted breakfast as a preschooler, I had to fix or find it. If I needed clean clothes, I had to wash them. In first grade, I was expected to wake myself up, get dressed, and get on the school bus without input or even a good morning from the adults in the house. At age six, I still had a potty chair in the laundry room because my father would stay in the only bathroom for an hour at a time and if I knocked on the door, he became enraged and screamed at me to find another place to go. I emptied and cleaned up the potty chair when he finally came out.
Before you make excuses for my parents…they weren’t working multiple jobs. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. Our house was not fancy, but it was clean. Mom did her laundry and my dad’s. She did most of the ironing although some of this was subbed out to me beginning when I was about four. Of course, she had to find me before she could delegate. I spent most of my time wandering the farm or sitting in the woods during the day until my dad came home.
The occasional fishing trip, trail ride, and visit to my grandparents did not adequately balance the grim reality of every day. There simply aren’t enough trips to Disneyland to fix a pervasive, everyday problem.
Do I understand the difference between feeling love and behaving in a loving manner?
I’m sure most of my family and our community would tell you my parents loved me. But they often did not behave in a loving manner. Crying was to risk being hit with the razor strop my dad raised in response. Asking for food, comfort, or help was to risk a cruel or dismissive response from my mother.
I felt my father loved me, but was dangerous. I was afraid of him until I left home for college. I still do not feel my mother loved me, or if she did, I’m certain she didn’t like me. A boyfriend once described her behavior toward me as turning up her nose as though I had shit on my shoes and she just couldn’t stand the smell.
The day after my mother died, my sister & I met for breakfast. I looked at her and said, “My first thought this morning was I never have to be a disappointment again.” Her eyebrows raised and she responded, “I thought exactly the same thing!”
Do I have unresolved feelings about my childhood? If so, can I make a realistic assessment regarding how those may impact my parenting? Do I have a plan for resolving those issues?
Given my background, it might seem advisable for me to choose not to have children. That was not the choice I made. Parenting was the hardest thing I’ve ever done because every move had to be mindful. I knew how bad it felt to be treated the way I was treated and I was determined not to do that to my children. That doesn’t mean they weren’t affected by my subconscious struggles or that I did not occasionally do hurtful things. It does mean the environment in our home was vastly different from the one in which I grew up.
When my oldest took a psychology class in college, he called me and said the class had taken an assessment and, other than getting a divorce, he couldn’t think of anything I’d done to screw up him and his brother. I’ll take that and my continuing close relationship with both boys as confirmation that I did an adequate job of breaking the cycle.
Do I have significant emotional resources to support me so that I can hold, comfort, and connect with my child each day?
Some of us have a deep well from which to draw. Others will need more outside support. It is okay to need whatever you need and to ask for help.
Can I put my feelings aside when appropriate in order to make decisions that will benefit my child?
If your ex-husband is making your life hell, can you keep all negative thoughts, feelings, and judgments to yourself in order to continue to encourage his relationship with his children? Can you handle being alone on Christmas without making your kids feel bad when it’s his year to have them? Can you be cordial to his wife and supportive of the rules in their household?
Do I feel safe in my home?
If not, neither will your child. One of the duties of parenting is to protect. Are there changes you can make to protect yourself and your child?
Do I feel competent to make good decisions?
If not, your child may feel a need to parent you. This is an undue burden.
Do I, or does my partner, create chaos in my home?
Chaos undermines a child’s feeling of security.
Am I flexible?
Life is unpredictable. Flexibility is a sign of mental health and maturity. It is important to live by guidelines that allow for adjustment to changing circumstances.
Do my partner and I have the same parenting objectives?
If partners do not share the same values, conflict will result. Minor conflicts and/or the ability to resolve conflicts can mitigate their effects. Ongoing conflict can feel dangerous to a child.
Are my partner and I able to work as a team?
Consistent expectations, boundaries, and consequences contribute to security. If partners do not work as a team, one may undermine what the other one is doing. This can have significant consequences.
There’s a couple in my circle of friends whose teenage son was arrested last fall for shooting up the cars at a friend’s house. Some of the bullets hit the house which was occupied by the parents at the time. This is a serious crime and the teen was at risk of being charged as an adult. The threat of prison was real.
The gunman attended a private school until high school. His parents are intelligent, good people. They have been married for over 20 years. They have long-term friendships. The father has worked for the same company for over 20 years. They have only moved once in that time frame.
The mom also has MS that has gradually placed more and more household burden on the father. As became clear in court, when dad would lay down the law, mom would go behind his back and release the son from imposed consequences. Dad was sometimes unaware until too late and sometimes too worn out for the fight. Or maybe he didn’t want to fight with his weakened wife who could no longer drive, lift a pan in the kitchen, or manage the laundry.
The result is heartbreaking. The daughter attempted suicide two years ago and the son committed a crime that endangered someone else’s life.
Do I consider my willingness to enforce a consequence before I institute one?
If you take away rare concert tickets and then give the tickets back because you feel bad knowing it might be the last chance to see that band in person, you let the child know consequences mean nothing.
If you take away a cell phone for a month, but then give it back in two days because you hadn’t considered that you wanted him/her to have it on a field trip, you teach the child that consequences are questionable.
If you take away TV and it means there are times you cannot watch TV, are you willing to inconvenience yourself in order to enforce the consequence?
Consequences that mean nothing may be worse than no consequences at all. Consequences with no meaning undermine trust.
Am I willing to look like the oddball when it benefits my child?
What works for one child may not work for another. Really knowing your child and being sensitive to the things that distress him/her can put you at odds with daycare workers, teachers, and principals. There is a delicate balance between advocating for your child and undermining authority.
I would not suggest undermining a teacher’s authority on minor issues. If your child comes home every day discouraged or has a real aversion to school that did not exist when in a different classroom, something is amiss. It may be time to visit the classroom, consult with other teachers, or request a classroom change. Your input may not be welcome. Remembering this is not about you, but the well-being of your child and using the strength of your convictions will allow you to be the best advocate.
Am I willing and able to put down the electronic devices and toys to encourage my child’s curiosity, imagination, and sense of adventure?
Non-directed play can build resilience. Knowing that we will not be perfect parents means that one part of our task is to help build resilience in our children.
Curiosity has been shown to field off depression by keeping us engaged in life. Imagination leads to creative solutions to problems. The ability to view changing circumstances as an adventure can bring a positive view of negative events.
Is my ultimate goal to prepare my child to be an adult who is secure, calm, competent, resourceful, compassionate, inspired, loving, flexible, empathetic, law-abiding, and capable of connection?
Most of us would probably say we want our children to be happy and achieve their dreams. Some of us might say we want our children to get the best education or highest paying job. Some of us have more specific achievement goals–go to an ivy league school, play professional sports, have a certain appearance, fit in a certain social circle, become a professional with an MD, JD, or PhD distinction. While there’s nothing wrong with aspiring goals, early pressure to perform can create anxiety.
Which brings us back to feeling carefree. Children can only feel carefree when their needs are met, they trust their protectors, they feel they are loved, expectations of them are realistic, and they know they can rely on the adults in their lives. It is possible to live in a home with plenty of resources and married parents and still not feel carefree.
Take it from me, children long for that feeling! Adults who endured a number of adverse childhood events may experience significant grief and loss during the healing process. Often it feels as though we lost the chance for a childhood.
I used to have a button that said, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” It’s a nice sentiment, a hopeful statement, and possibly an inspiration for some. The statement is sometimes based on the idea that we can reparent ourselves.
I believe we can reframe our experiences and heal, but we never regain our childhood. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Let’s help our children feel carefree while they are children!