As Program Director for Lakeside Global Institute, one of my responsibilities is to write curriculum and design training for the many professionals around Philadelphia as well as in rural Pennsylvania who attend the courses we provide.
In recent years, our focus has been on trauma and its impact on children and families.
Much of our work—and work going on all over the country—is based on the research conducted in the late 1990s on the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on future physical, social, and emotional health outcomes. [Please consider joining ACEs Connection for free, and for more information on the ACEs study, click the link.]
Founder Jane Stevens was recently interviewed in a podcast for Change Agent in which she shared many fascinating aspects of the ACEs work being done all over the country.
She shared four messages she said are very effective in addressing some of the deep and profoundly painful beliefs of children who experienced toxic adversity in their young lives. [Go to minute 38 to hear them directly]
I believe knowing these four messages can be helpful to all parents and caregivers, not just those whose children have been traumatized at some point in their young lives, but because they can counter some of the beliefs many children create as they experience life.
Children need to hear these messages both said and demonstrated by those who love them to counteract negative core beliefs, and they need to hear them repeatedly:
“You were not born bad.”
When children are treated harshly, unfairly or are neglected and ignored, they can conclude that from the very beginning they had no worth and in fact were and are bad. They need to be affirmed over and over for being more than valued, that they are cherished. They need to know they are unique and precious, and that they contribute so much to their family.
“You had no control over what happened to you as a child.”
This is a message that counters the belief children often have that they caused whatever problems and negativity that happen to them. They believe this because they are egocentric by nature, feeling that they almost magically control the things that happen around and to them. By communicating this message over and over, parents and caregivers can diminish the unhealthy sense of power that children often have.
“You coped appropriately.”
This message validates that children did the best they could under the circumstances to survive whatever adversity occurred to them. Children and adolescents sometimes do things that are illegal, immoral or/or unhealthy in order to deal with their own internal fears, anxieties, anger issues, feelings of being overwhelmed, despairing, depressed, and desperate, often with no sense of power to make their lives better. By acknowledging that their responses to adversities make sense and are legitimate (even if they were or still are illegal, immoral and/or unhealthy), parents and caregivers are acknowledging the logic of their responses. This does not mean children do not have to be held accountable in some way, but rather that accountability is more about how the adults around them need to help children understand and appreciate why they have behaved in these ways. Parents and caregivers then need to provide opportunities for children to make amends even as they learn to better understand and appreciate themselves.
“You can change.”
This is the message of hope. It says you are not stuck here having to drown in the impact of the adversities you experienced. You are not permanently destined to feel what you have been feeling, to continue to cope in ways that are not healthy for you or others. You have the power to change yourself. Yes, it will take time and it may not be easy to do. But it is doable. There are people who will help you, who will support you, who will guide you, and who will not judge or criticize you. All of us have brains that are malleable. What happened to you as a child does not have to be a life sentence of pain.
I thought these four messages were just so powerful!
I think they need to be the message is heard in classrooms and courtrooms as well as in homes.
Many adults need to hear these messages as well. Many adults experienced powerfully wounding adversities in childhood that scarred them. These adverse messages left them with deep-seated beliefs that continue to cause them emotional and physical pain, damage their abilities to create and nurture positive relationships, physically hurt their immune systems and stress responses, and prevent them from leading full and healthy lives.
I encourage everyone reading this to pause and reflect on these four messages and their importance.
Many thanks to Jane Stevens for sharing them, and for all the other ways she has provided encouragement in her podcast. It is well worth the time to listen and absorb both the realities and the potentials she describes.
Invitation to Reflect
- When you read each of the four messages, were you aware of some of your own internal beliefs resonating with any or all of these messages? What specifically came to mind? An image? A story? A particular person?
- How comfortable are you in making sure you transmit these messages to your children? This is especially true if you know your children have experienced one or more of the childhood adversities uncovered in the ACEs research. Even without overtly experiencing one or more of these childhood adversities, know that these messages can be universally helpful in countering the possibility that a child has adopted one or more of the unhealthy inner beliefs that can prevent them from experiencing peace, happiness, and hope.
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute