Expanding our Horizons

Tag: development

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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The Daily Vroom App

Parents of kids age five and younger often find themselves juggling work and family, wondering if they’re doing enough of the important stuff kids need to learn and succeed. In our fast paced society, it’s easy to feel rushed, stressed, and overwhelmed. Daily Vroom, a mobile app created to be wherever parents and caregivers are, reminds us that we already have within us what it takes to help kids develop.

Vroom is based on the ideas that brain building moments are all around us and any moment can become a brain building moment. Some parents might benefit from using everyday moments a little differently while others may need new ideas to spark everyday learning.

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In the first five years of life, a child’s brain makes more than 700 neural connections every second. These neural connections form the foundation for future learning. Since each experience and interaction shapes the growing brain, we’re teaching our kids whether we’re trying to or not. Daily Vroom helps parents understand what happens in children’s brains during these experiences and interactions.

Three scientific principles comprise the essence of Vroom. The first principle is that positive relationships with caring adults are essential for brain building. There is no healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development in the absence of relationships.

The second principle is that back and forth interaction between a child and adult—especially pre-language—is the root of relationships. When parents respond to children’s sounds, actions, and expressions, children learn that their sounds, actions, and expressions have meaning. With or without words, kids learn to initiate communication, pay attention, respond, express clarity, and change topics.

The third principle is that children are not born with executive functioning skills, but they are born with the capacity to develop them. Executive functioning skills include working memory, self-control, and mental flexibility. The interactions and experiences children have in early childhood can help them focus, adjust, resist temptations, and manage emotions. These skills are essential in getting along, achieving goals, and becoming part of a civil society.

The Daily Vroom app gives you access to over 1,000 tips appropriate for your child’s age as well as the brainy background (or science) behind the tips. For example, during bath time, give your two year old different size containers to scoop and pour water. Encourage her to explore and compare the containers and talk about what she’s doing. The app will point out that children learn best through hands-on exploration in playful, commonplace ways. When you help your child set up experiments to learn how the world works, she’ll employ math and science concepts and develop critical thinking skills as well.

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You can choose tips related to changing diapers, cleaning up, doing laundry, going to bed, or being in the car, on foot, or at the park. Brushing hair can become math, getting dressed can improve self-control, and eating peas can explain cause and effect. Your child’s development begins and grows with you.

5 Brain Building Basics

  • Look: make eye contact with your child.
  • Chat: talk about things you see, hear, and do. Explain what’s happening around you.
  • Follow: let your child lead. Respond to her sounds and actions. When she starts talking, ask questions like “What do you think caused that?” and “Why do you like that?”
  • Stretch: make interactions last longer by building on your child’s words and actions.
  • Take Turns: use sounds, words, facial expressions, and gestures to go back and forth to create games or conversations.