I know we like to imagine childhood as carefree and innocent – and for some that may have been the case. But from my perspective, it’s never been particularly easy to be a kid. Growing up always comes with growing pains. Every kid will eventually learn about pain and grief and disappointment.
But today, the whole process between being born and becoming an adult seems to be more difficult than ever.
According to the American Psychological Association, the stress level of American teenagers today has reached a level equal to that of adults – except during the school year, when it’s even higher than that of adults.
And stress is nothing to take lightly. Stress leads to illness. And, when stress is added to economic adversity, it can have a significant impact on a teenager’s developing brain.
One tool that seeks to address that question is the ACEs survey. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other marks of a rough childhood. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for later health problems.
Adverse childhood experiences include physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; and household dysfunction including the violent treatment of one’s mother, mental illness, the incarceration of a relative, substance abuse, and divorce. Unfortunately, all of these experiences are far too common.
It’s no secret that we are struggling in our own community with the fact that our young people are in trouble. They are experiencing mental illness, they are experiencing homelessness, they are taking their own lives. And the ACEs survey can help shed some light on root causes.
It makes sense that children who experience abuse would be at high risk. What might not be quite as obvious is how common child abuse really is. The National Children’s Alliance reports that early 700,000 children are abused in the United States every year. In 2015, 1,670 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States. Right now Child Protective Services is working to protect more than 3 million children.
Even if home is safe shelter, there seems to be more danger than ever out in the world. When I was in school, we had drills for fire and tornados, and even for a nuclear attack. That was frightening – but it was a distant fear of a far away enemy. Today there are drills to survive a shooter coming into the school. And for good reason. Since 2013, there have been over 200 school shootings in America — that’s an average of nearly one a week.
And the nature of school bullying has also changed since I was a kid. Back then, I often came home in tears – but once I was home, I found respite. The bullies in my life didn’t have the technology to follow me home or harass me at all hours of the day and the night. And they couldn’t hide behind anonymity. I knew who my friends were and who I wanted to avoid.
While extracurricular activities have always played a significant role in children’s’ lives, social media now consumes two hours or more of a kid’s day. Time on social media robs children of much needed exercise. And tight academic and extracurricular schedules have robbed children of a chance to simply play together while learning how to negotiate themselves and settle disputes without the intervention of well intentioned parents.
All that being said, ACE scores don't tally the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and protect a child from the effects of trauma. Psychologists say that having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may alleviate the long-term effects of early trauma.
Children build resiliency when we trust them enough to make their own decisions and to manage their own lives. When we perpetually rescue our kids from the consequences of their own actions, we rob them of the opportunity to learn important lessons – including how to get back up after you’ve fallen down. When kid’s learn early on when the stakes are low how to manage loss and failure, then they are far more likely to have the tools they need to survive when life goes to hell (and life always eventually goes to hell) and the stakes are higher. Rather than trying to protect our kids from feeling pain or trying to simply make the pain go away, we need to be willing to sit with them IN their pain.
What else can we do? Chris Nelson, with Attention Homes, has worked with young people for over 20 years. He says what we really need to do if we want to help young people is listen to them. “… for too long as a society we’ve not empowered young people enough to give us their voice and tell us what they need, and if we listen to young people, they’ll tell us how to help them.”
Resiliency builds throughout life, and close relationships are the key. Research suggests that just one caring, safe relationship early in life gives any child a much better shot at growing up healthy. Which means we are the key. As with every other topic we’ve covered this year, it’s all about connection. It’s all about reaching out to another human being with genuine care and compassion.