“All that babies do is just eat, sleep, and poop” is a common saying to new parents in the early days of life with a newborn. While it does seem like that could be true, babies do A LOT more. You may have heard that early childhood is one of the most important periods of time in a person’s life. By the age of 3, eighty percent of the child’s brain is developed, and by age 5, ninety percent of the brain is developed. A baby forms more than 1 million neural connections per second in the first three years of life! That is a massive period of growth in a short period of time. But why is the early childhood period important, and how can I support it?
To review [last month’s] article titled “Your Child’s Environment Matters… For Life”, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (“ACEs”) survey measures the potential for long-term health consequences resulting from a turbulent home environment and exposure to traumatic events. The ACEs survey includes ten questions about the experiences that occurred up to a child’s 18th birthday. Examples of experiences measured in the ACEs survey include not getting emotional or physical needs met, experiencing physical and/or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, living with a depressed or otherwise mentally ill caregiver, etc. The groundbreaking ACEs study was one of the largest investigations to uncover the link between childhood maltreatment and health and well-being later in life. The study revealed that the higher the ACEs score, the more likely someone would be later impacted by poor health outcomes. Furthermore, the ACEs study discovered key answers to the age-old debate: nature versus nurture.
The ACES study helps us draw the dots between what happened to you as a child and what you may be experiencing as an adult. However, your ACEs score does not factor in the number of positive experiences that helped build resilience or your inherited genes, for example. Knowing your ACEs score is important because we know more, we can do more. Knowledge is power. You, beautiful human, can make a difference.
Adversity becomes embedded into biology, behavior, and risk, and relationship-based support builds resilience that shifts the generational trajectory of the people we are. The Healthy Opportunities for Parents to Experience Success (“HOPES”) program, affiliated with Prevent Child Abuse America and accredited under Healthy Families America national model for home visitation, is one effective prevention strategy to mitigate the impacts of adverse childhood experiences using a strength-based and multi-generational approach.
The enrollment period of the HOPES program is during pregnancy or within the first three months of a child’s life. This crucial time allows for parents to make the largest impact on the development and attachment of their little one. During weekly or biweekly home visits, parents are supported by home visitors in setting goals, monitoring growth and development, linking to community resources, and coaching families in parent-child interactions. As a long-term, robust home visitation program, the HOPES program continues to provide visits to families until the child turns 3 or 5 years old.
A study from the University of Michigan’s Zero to Thrive found that early trauma and adversity may reduce parenting capacity, impacting the social-emotional and language development in the child. Home visitation programs, like HOPES, using an infant-mental health approach can help reduce the impact of maternal ACEs on toddler language development.
Let’s take a deeper dive into parenting with an ACEs score and preventing them from occurring in children…
As mammals, we are inherently wired for connection from the very beginning. The infant’s cries are a biological way to bring their caregiver closer. This gives the parent an opportunity to respond. When the parent compassionately responds to the child every time, this action literally builds the child’s brain – building what they need to be a relational adult someday. When a child’s cues are not responded to in a timely and nurturing way, the child begins to learn that their needs should be repressed or that they do not matter. This very experience leads to a child developing an ACEs score and further leads to detrimental health outcomes throughout the child’s life. Furthermore, being a parent who did not get their own needs met in childhood can create challenges in knowing how to effectively respond to their child.
Parenting is equally and understandably one of the most challenging and rewarding roles to fill. It’s common to revert back to how we were parented and our environment growing up. Maybe your father told you that he used to say he’d “give you something to cry about” and that you turned out “just fine.” In other words, your father was likely feeling too uncomfortable with the expression of your emotions that he needed to make it stop, hence “stop crying or I’ll spank you.” But that doesn’t mean that method was appropriate or effective or okay. That may have been all he knew or how his parent(s) responded to him. As new research becomes available, we have learned to evolve past outdated parenting strategies like these of spanking and telling a child to “toughen up”. Again, knowledge is power, and change can happen.
This is where home visitation programs like the HOPES program can help break generational cycles and build parental capacity through positive triadic interactions. In triadic interactions, the home visitor provides a space for the parent to regulate their emotions. In turn, the parent begins to learn how to co-regulate with their child when they express their own emotions. This is like a dance, of both the parent and the child getting what they need to be present and in tune with each other in the next moment together. Material items like the most popular Fischer Price toy is not what matters most to building the child’s brain. What matters most in the times the parent and child are together, and the parent does this:
- Respond to child’s cues/needs
- Exchange smiles and laughter
- Use nurturing physical touch
- Take turns playing
- Talk back and forth
- Show concern and care
Home visitors are like a walking protective factor for parents who present with ACEs. Home visitors in evidence-based home visitation programs, like HOPES, are highly trained in the prevention of child abuse and neglect and are trauma-informed. Home visitors embed effective practices like early childhood coaching strategies and developmental parenting strategies into home visits to nurture positive parent and child interactions. Home visitors provide a space for parents to be heard and affirmed, which can be a powerful experience for the ACE survivor.
There are several other ways in addition to home visitation that may help minimize the impact of ACEs. This could include activities such as therapy, coaching, mindfulness, joining a supportive community, journaling, yoga, holistic health care, compassionate self-care practices, self-help books, and more. Verbalizing your needs and reaching out for support shows your strength. You are not defined by your past. There is a path forward. You are not alone—you MATTER.
Sending love + light on your healing journey.
By Mallory Berkenpas
Service Coordinator of Early Childhood Programs
Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI)
For more information on HOPES, contact email@example.com