Expanding our Horizons

Category: health

The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences: Managing Emotions and Stress

Linda Chamberlain is the founder of the Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project and an internationally recognized advocate for understanding the effects of domestic violence and adverse childhood experiences on brain development and health. She focuses on creating tools that highlight trauma-informed practices for parents, service providers, and organizations that work with kids and families.

Children develop 85% of their core brain structure in their first five years of life and then continue to build on that core foundation the rest of their lives. The young brain is like a sponge—effortlessly, continuously, and indiscriminately soaking up information. From birth, our undeveloped brains are waiting for experiences to shape them. Our first experiences become the building blocks for our whole lives. Our brains are mirrors to our childhood developmental experiences.

Dr. Chamberlain recognizes the importance of social and emotional skills in academic and life success. The biological sponginess of our brains allows us to acquire so much information before age five, but it also makes youth more vulnerable to trauma than people who are older. Most people perceive youth to be more resilient than adults, but it’s actually the opposite; if anyone is impacted by trauma more severely, it’s the youngest child.

Trauma Tree

The roots represent the prenatal stage of growth and where the tree touches the ground is birth. The trunk is infancy, early childhood is the lower branches, and up to adulthood is the top branches. When trauma occurs, the rest of the tree’s (brain’s) growth beyond that point is negatively affected. As you age, you have more life experiences and knowledge to cope, but also more branches to compensate.

This concept becomes significant when we learn that 95% of kids have adverse childhood experiences. Kids who grow up in domestic violence end up with mental health issues more often than kids who are direct victims of physical abuse. Exposure to violence is a lifetime legacy. While domestic violence and abuse are often tangible and identifiable, there’s an endless range of situations and experiences that are adverse (or less tangible and identifiable).

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The brain of a child, Dr. Chamberlain asserts, will become exactly what the child is exposed to. Children exposed to fighting parents will experience a state a fear, and systems in their brains shut down. Parents who fight in front of their kids are literally changing their children’s brains. Moreover, a baby absorbs her parent’s internal state. A kind parent creates a kind child; a patient parent creates a patient child.

Symptoms of chronic stress or signs of exposure to trauma can range from night terrors to attachment issues. Kids who are labeled as ADHD or defiant may be operating in crisis or survival mode. Trauma and stress are stored in our bodies, reside in our nervous systems, and disconnect the person we are from the body we live in. Trauma also interferes with the development of self-regulatory skills.

The great news is that our brains have the capacity to change, heal, and rewire across our lifespans. A resilient individual isn’t someone who avoids stress but someone who learns how to manage it. Kids can develop competence under adverse circumstances because of strong parent-child relationships as well as the ability to self-regulate attention, emotions, and behaviors. Both resilience and mindfulness are learned skills. Kids can even learn resilience vicariously by watching others overcome adversity.

One simple strategy to teach kids to manage emotions and stress is the Fingerhold Practice. It combines breathing and holding each finger and can be helpful when difficult feelings arise or challenging experiences are anticipated. Holding each finger in turn, gently but firmly, with the other hand and breathing comfortably or slowly can be calming, reduce tension, and provide a sense of control. Many adults feel relief after 2-5 minutes per finger, while kids typically feel relief more quickly (30-60 seconds).

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Routines are the Foundation for Early Childhood Mental Health

By Maegan Lokteff, PhD

Almost everyone likes to have a routine. Some people have an exercise routine, a morning routine, and a work routine. Routines create structure and help guide activities. They provide predictability and security.

For young children, routines provide the foundation for positive early childhood mental health. Routines ensure relationships. For young children, routines need to be facilitated by the adults in their lives. Routines also ensure repetition. Repetition helps babies and toddlers learn to connect their relationships to their experiences of safety and security. Routines play a major role in helping children develop social and emotional skills by providing safe and predictable experiences which allow them to develop and practice social and emotional understanding.

Routines and Self-Control

Routines help young children learn self-control by providing a sense of safety and security. When children feel safe in their day to day activities, they have more freedom to explore, play, and learn.

Routines Reduce Power Struggles

Mother_Scolding_Aspergers_Son-881x499Because they provide children with information about what will happen next, routines can reduce power struggles. Children feel more in control and have a greater sense of security regarding what’s happening to and around them. When children feel in control, they may be more likely to respond positively to requests.

Routines and Safety

bike-helmet-childWhile routines support young children’s sense of security, they can also support the health and safety of a young child. When health and safety practices like washing hands, sitting in a car seat, or wearing a helmet are expected routines, children are more likely to do them. This in turn supports their health, safety, and sense of responsibility.

Routines and Social Skills

Social interactions are a series of routines. As babies grow into toddlers, they learn how to respond to social cues from routines (they know to say hello when someone arrives and goodbye when someone leaves, for example). Social patterns and routines help young children understand turn taking in conversation and activities as well as problem solving with peers.

Routines and Transitions

toddler-tantrum-1024x682Routines can make transitions easier. Routines around transitions, such as bed time or going to day care, help children know what to expect next. This makes them feel secure and makes the change in activity or environment easier to process.

Routines are the foundation for promoting social and emotional health in young children. They offer opportunities for children to build self-confidence, curiosity, social skills, self-control, regulation, and communication skills.

Maegan Lokteff
Grand Beginnings, Executive Director; 970.725.3391; director@grandbeginnings.org

Maegan has spent almost 20 years working with children and families. After earning a BS in Child Development and Family Relations and a BS in Recreation at the University of Idaho, Maegan spent several years working in early care and education programs, after school programs, and summer day camps as both a teacher and administrator. She spent four years as a coordinator and advocate for families experiencing domestic violence. In 2014, Maegan completed her PhD in Family and Human Development with an emphasis in child development and early care and education at Utah State University.

The mission of Grand Beginnings is to promote a child-centered school readiness system that fosters early learning, facilitates healthy child development and promotes family success in Grand County.

More information can be found at Creating Routines for Love and Learning, Zero to Three, 2010.

The Five Critical Needs of Children

By Jessica Smolleck, Pyramid Plus Teacher with Grand Beginnings

1) Every person, whether an adult or a child, needs to feel respected.

  • Examine whether you’re treating your children in a positive and respectful way or whether you’re treating them with rudeness by lying to them, demeaning them, or not listening to them. Before you respond to your child, ask yourself: “How would I respond if I was speaking to an adult?”

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2) Children appreciate being made to feel important.

  • Children need to have a sense of value, control, and usefulness. They need to feel that they are somebody. Find a middle ground between being protective and allowing your child to explore the world. Be willing to listen and let them problem solve or make decisions. Let your children take responsibility for some things.

3) All kids desire and need to be accepted for who they are.

  • Children have a right to their own feelings, desires, and ideas and they deserve to be recognized. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree or disagree with everything, it simply means that you acknowledge them. Avoid overreacting, being overly critical, or encouraging kids to suppress their feelings. Instead, listen to them and praise the things you like.

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4) Everyone likes to be included, but children especially need to feel included.

  • Children need to be brought in and made to feel a part of things. They need to feel included in family activities and events. Spend time each day sharing what each person in the family is doing, try to make the kids a part of decisions being made, and find activities that the whole family can do together.

5) Most importantly, children must feel secure.

  • Children need to be in an environment and have relationships that are consistent and caring. They need to know they are loved no matter what and that you have their best interests at heart. Keep this in mind with your interaction with your kids, your discipline, and your relationships with others.
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Unconditional Love

Becoming a Student of My Own Behavior

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Self-reflection, self-improvement

  • Which of my action today were positive in regard to my child/children’s 5 critical needs?
  • Which of my actions today were negative in meeting the five critical needs of my child/children?
  • What does this tell me about myself
  • If I were doing today over again, what would I do differently?
  • What will I change or try to do tomorrow?

 

Be a Brain Builder

The first three years of life boast the most rapid and robust brain growth, when 85% of the physical brain develops. At birth, the brain has about all of the neurons it will ever have and can create synapses faster than it will ever be able to. Synapses between neurons are strengthened by use. Rarely used synapses become weak before being eliminated.

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Synapse density over time.

Every day in the United States, one in 1,000 newborns is born profoundly deaf and another two to three out of 1,000 are born with partial hearing loss. Fluctuating hearing loss due to frequent ear infections could mean a young child is missing vital speech information.

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Dr. Dana Suskind

Dr. Dana Suskind specializes in pediatric hearing loss and cochlea implantation at the University of Chicago and is the founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative. With cochlear implant surgery, Dr. Suskind gave children the gift of sound, changing the trajectory of their lives in one day.

Suskind realized that surgery brought children closer to a new world, but the real change happened after surgery. Regarding development, the ability to hear is trivialized without a language rich environment. Hearing is a way for sounds to get into the brain for processing; we hear with our brains, not with our ears. Children’s brains need words to grow.

The Thirty Million Words Initiative refers to a 1990 study citing how many more words children from higher socioeconomic households were exposed to by age three compared to children from lower socioeconomic households. Those who grew up in word poor homes had smaller vocabularies, poorer grades, and lower IQs.

Thirty Million Words promotes baby talk (using rhythm, melodic pitch, and positive tone not fabricated words) and reading to babies. It encourages bilingual families to use mostly their native language and advocates for increased language exposure using the mantra, “Don’t just do it, talk them through it.” It promotes the Three T’s:

  • Tune in: notice what a child is focused on and talk about it. Respond when a child communicates in any way.
  • Talk more: narrate daily routines such as getting dressed and eating meals. Use description, detail, and variety.
  • Take turns: keep the conversation going. Respond to a child’s sounds, gestures, and words and allow plenty of time for the child to respond. Ask questions that compel more than yes or no answers.

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Teri Kite, Teacher of Deaf and Hard of Hearing for Northwest Colorado BOCES and Horizons Specialized Services, says: “Anything we recommend to increase language acquisition for a child with hearing impairment is also good for a child with normal hearing. Enriching language is a universal need in our world that is increasingly electronic.” Teri has seen how making communication fun can ultimately make for families of good communicators. “It’s never too early to begin purposeful communication with your child. Babies’ minds are little sponges.”

In collaboration with Colorado Hands and Voices, Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, and The Listen Foundation, Horizons and BOCES are hosting three presentations on March 11th for Early Childhood professionals, families of children with hearing loss, older children with hearing loss, and families and children of all hearing abilities interested in language acquisition (with Thirty Million Words). For more information, contact Susan Mizen (smizen@horizonsnwc.org) or Teri Kite (teri.kite@nwboces.org).

Real Food: Deciphering Diet Trends

Based on Integrated Health‘s presentation by Cara Marrs, Laura Stout and Charlie Petersen at YVMC.

90% of the cases medical professionals treat in the hospital today are driven by lifestyle diseases—those associated with the way a person lives. That means that while 10% of our health is dictated by genetics, we still have control over the other 90%.

We’ve learned over the years that when we focus on weight, things fall apart. Moving from a definition of diet as a means to lose weight to diet as the kind of food a person continually eats can help us reduce the number and severity of lifestyle diseases.

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Looking back, American diet trends have been intriguing. In the 1930s and 40s, smoking was marketed as a means for weight loss. In the 1950s, there was the cabbage soup diet. It was fast acting and easy to follow: seven days of broth and vegetables. We’ve seen drugs like Fenphedra and Apidren and additives likes Olestra, but these aren’t necessarily safe or sustainable. Diet pills help you lose weight quickly but are intended for short term use only. Diet pills and additives often have undesirable and/or serious medical side effects.

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In the 1980s and 90s, we moved to a low fat trend. Shunning fats, we consumed too many carbs by eating increased amounts of processed fat free foods (which are also high in salt and sugar). The low fat trend gets much of the blame for America’s obesity epidemic.

fat tieIn response, the Atkins Diet removed carbs in favor of high proteins. People lost weight fast, but the Atkins Diet also proved unsustainable. Carbohydrates are essential to our health; along with proteins and fats, they’re one of the macro-nutrients we need to function. Our muscles are fueled by carbs and our brains run on sugar or ketones. A lot of cancers track with a higher consumption of red meat. Those who followed the Atkins Diet experienced higher cholesterol levels and consumed little to no fiber, resulting in a lack of much needed prebiotics. And as soon as they stopped Atkins, their weight returned.

Meal replacement systems like Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig offer prepackaged foods delivered to your house. Portions are controlled and meals provide a balance of macro nutrients. Weight Watchers adds the accountability of a group setting. Drawbacks to these systems include their cost and their use of processed ingredients with lots of chemicals. They provide convenience to consumers but don’t establish a relationship between consumers and food. Once the program is finished, people often don’t know how to shop for and prepare their own meals.

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Then came the Master Cleanse (or Lemonade Diet). It consists of salt water each morning, water with fresh lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper throughout the day, and an herbal laxative tea at night. With virtually no calories, weight loss is guaranteed. But you’ll be losing water weight and lean muscle mass—not fat. Fasting can negatively affect your metabolism, increasing the likelihood that you’ll regain weight once you resume a normal diet. Additionally, the Master Cleanse can set you up for nutrient deficiencies, a weakened immune system, and heart and kidney problems.

Juicing is a similar cleanse promoting detoxification and offering more calories (with little to no protein and fat). It can be a good reset for your body but not a healthy, sustainable weight loss program.

More recently, we’ve begun to see lifestyles marketed more so than diets. We hear people identifying themselves as Paleo or Vegan and proclaiming that they “eat clean.” These lifestyles are on the right track, but it’s important to remember that you can take the good parts from each plan to make your own healthy, sustainable lifestyle. We’re more likely to see people focus on real foods and stay away from processed foods. Mainstream messaging informs us about the harmful effects of sugar, a disease-causing “recreational drug.” More people understand the benefits of eating plant-based food rather than man-made food (aka, “the anti-nutrient”).

apple v cookieAmerican diet trends are continuing in their transition from the determination to lose weight to the appreciation for whole body health. People are accepting that food can be functional and medicinal, tasty and fun. Mindfulness is moving into the kitchen with an intent to nurture a healthy relationship between food, eating, mental health and physical health. We’re considering nutrient density instead of counting calories. We even recognize that cultures exist—Blue Zones—where people don’t diet.

Because of their lifestyles, activities, eating habits and values, people in Blue Zones live long lives free of heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes. Blue Zone cultures tend to value mindless movement and/or exercise; community, friends and family; plant-based diets (with meat as an accent); sunshine; a sense of purpose or religion; wine; herbal teas; and goat milk. We can look to these cultures and see that food is more than what we eat.

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