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Adverse Childhood Experiences: Where does bullying fit in?

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACEs, conducted in the 1990s has captured the attention of our medical and educational community. This study identified 10 stressful conditions that children experience early in life that have lasting implications on health across the lifetime. These 10 experiences are: emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, witnessing domestic violence, parental mental illness, parental abandonment, parental addiction and parental incarceration.

The original 10 ACEs may only be the tip of the iceberg. Researchers have suggested that the original list, while relevant to the population that was studied (mostly white, middle class) may not be as inclusive as it should be. Poverty, bullying and neighborhood violence are worthy considerations.

There are three key points that have been learned from this important research. First, ACEs are very common. Seven out of 10 people report having at least one ACE while 12 percent have four or more. Second, ACEs tend to cluster. As one ACE occurs, the likelihood of a second or third ACE occurring also increases. For example, if a child experiences parental abandonment, they may also be impacted by conditions that led to the abandonment such as addiction, domestic violence or parental incarceration. Third, there is a dose-response relationship to ACEs. The higher the number of ACEs a person experiences in childhood, the more likely the individual will suffer from health problems across their lifetime. These health problems include depression, addiction, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and cancer. Seven of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States have been linked to ACEs.

The reason for this connection has to do with the effects of toxic stress on the developing brain. When children are exposed to prolonged toxic stress, their brains develop differently. Toxic stress can impact the developing brain's ability to regulate emotions and problem-solve, resulting in a child exhibiting maladaptive behaviors and poor coping skills.

Many facilities and schools have undergone trauma informed care training to heighten awareness and sensitivity in understanding the more severe impacts of childhood trauma on adult and child health and behavior. The pivotal question that has demonstrated this shift in our perspective is "What happened to you?" rather than "What is wrong with you?"

The impacts of bullying on children have also become clearer in the last decade. These two problem areas are not mutually exclusive. Looking broadly at toxic stress, ACEs represent serious problems impacting children inside the home, while bullying is one of many toxic stress experiences that most often takes place outside the home.

Child maltreatment researcher David Finkelhor (2012) has proposed that the original ACEs be revised and expanded to include many of the serious factors occurring outside the home and in our communities like gun violence, poverty and bullying.

ACEs are only half the story. Research also shows that there are important protective factors that parents can use to help buffer children from harmful stress. Several of these protective factors include parents being resilient themselves, having a strong social support network for the family, understanding child development and effective parents, and helping children increase their social and emotional competence. Parents can help their children become more resilient.

What parents can do:

  • Be aware of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Learn what parents can do to buffer children from the harmful effects of toxic stress.
  • Be involved in your child's life. Be proactive! Be actively engaging in positive activities and nurturing experiences with your children. Talk with your children. Read to your children. Play with your children.
  • Buffer children from harmful effects of ACEs by learning more about what kids need at their age. Understand what your child needs at each stage of their development. While they will always need you as a parent, your role will change with your child's emerging skills. They will continue to need guidance and support from you. Children do not come with instructions. It is okay to learn more about effective parenting by taking a parenting class.
  • Help children learn problem-solving skills, coping skills and emotional regulation skills. Teach your child how to solve problems using a basic formula like the IDEAL model from ACT-Raising Safe Kids:
    • Identify the feelings and situation for each person involved.
    • Develop several solutions that might solve the problem.
    • Evaluate the pros and cons of each solution.
    • Act and choose one solution to implement.
    • Learn from the experience.
  • Model problem-solving yourself.
  • Learn to manage your own anger and other difficult emotions.
Jeff Reiland, MS

Author

Jeff Reiland, MS, Child and Family Therapist, Gundersen Health System

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