Becoming a caregiver to a little one is full of so many happy moments. But parenting is also challenging, and for those of us who experienced trauma during childhood, stressful moments can quickly become overwhelming. There are many ways to cope with stress that can improve your ability to handle difficult situations and help you focus on providing your child with positive experiences.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is a term used to describe stressful, potentially traumatic situations children are exposed to before the age of 18. Across California alone, an estimated 62% of the population has been exposed to at least one ACE, ranging from abuse to household challenges like divorce and neglect. If you think you might have been exposed to ACEs as a child, you can take this short quiz, provided by the American Society for the Positive Parenting of Children, to understand your ACEs. ACEs impact every community, and if you find that you’ve been exposed to ACEs, you’re not alone.
How can ACEs impact parenting?
Caregivers who faced ACEs and didn’t get the support they needed as a child might find that their body responds to small problems in a big way. This reaction can be linked to a buildup of toxic stress in the body, caused by exposure to frequent and/or severe stress during childhood. When toxic stress builds up, it can impact physical and mental health, leading to increased sickness and difficulties with relationships, jobs, and finances.
Parenting is a demanding job, and caregivers with a heightened stress response can get overwhelmed quickly. Those with unaddressed ACEs might find themselves feeling threatened or anxious even when there’s no immediate danger. Highly challenging situations could lead to stress overload, sparking a quicker temper, difficulty calming down or thinking logically, and more. Being a caregiver with toxic stress can increase the risk that their children will also have ACEs, creating a cycle of toxic stress between adults and their kids.
How can I end the cycle of toxic stress?
Caregivers can end the cycle of toxic stress by focusing on healing and creating positive childhood experiences for their little ones. If you have been exposed to unaddressed ACEs, here are some steps you can take:
If you have family members or friends you can rely on, talk to them about what you’re experiencing, and seek out their support when you’re having a hard time dealing with the challenges of parenting. It’s also never too late to get help from health care professionals. Talk to your primary care physician about your experiences, and work with them to find ways to cope and heal from childhood trauma. You can also visit our mental health resources page to explore more options for seeking help.
Identify what causes your stress or trauma response, and practice strategies for coping so you are ready to use them when you feel stress building. Strategies for coping can include taking deep belly breaths, removing yourself from the situation for a few minutes to gather your thoughts, taking a shower to calm your nervous system, calling a trusted friend, and more. This article provides additional tips for relieving stress when you feel overwhelmed by the challenges of life.
Write down empathetic language you can use in stressful moments. A child who is crying or having a tantrum can be frustrating and can lead to a stress response that causes caregivers to lash out. By having empathetic language written down and nearby, you can avoid reacting negatively to your child. Focus on language that shows your child you’re there to help and support them. Try statements like: I will help you work it out. I’m listening. I’m here for you. It’s OK to be sad.
Provide your little one with positive childhood experiences. Research has shown that adults who had positive childhood experiences were less likely to experience depression and other mental health conditions, and they were more likely to have positive relationships. Nurturing your child and showing them your love and support are all positive childhood experiences. Wrap your child up in a long hug. Do fun, playful activities together. When you’ve made a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize, and repair the relationship. Talk to your child about their feelings, and help them through difficult moments by showing them your loving support.
Being a caregiver can be challenging, and we’re all striving to be better parents every day. The good news is that your child doesn’t need you to be perfect. They need your support and love and to know that you’re always there for them. By healing yourself and practicing some stress management skills, you can set your child up for a healthy, happy life.