ON THE HOMEFRONT
Sometimes I ask my adult children questions and really fear the answers. There is something about that kind of suspense, I suppose. So I did it again this summer when we were all together.
“What was the worst thing I ever did as a parent?” I asked them.
They responded all too quickly. Worse than that, all three of them had the same answer.
“You sent us to that after-school program when all our friends were able to go home,” they declared almost in unison.
They said it with such vindication that I was struck by how awful it sounded. Then I relaxed and thought about how if this is the first thing that came to their minds, I must have done pretty well.
They kept going on, comparing stories of boring activities and stale snacks while I reminded them how they didn’t want to leave when I came to pick them up. I was often accused of being the joy kill, interrupting games or movies with my arrival. They claimed to have been just making the best of it and that they have been scarred for life from the experience.
My observations of the adults they have become tell me they either had a lot of resilience, or the program wasn’t really all that bad. I did remind my kids that if this is the worst thing that happened to them, they had it pretty good. Much to their dismay, being sent to an after-school program does not appear on the list of adverse childhood experiences.
Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, are conditions which predispose a child to negative outcomes. ACES include things like physical, mental or sexual abuse, parental substance abuse, violence, parental mental illness, divorce/separation of parents and living in poverty. While ACES are in no way predictors of negative outcomes, the higher the number of ACES in one’s life, the greater the risk for chronic disease, substance abuse, mental health issues, risky health behaviors, domestic abuse and other negative effects.
Between 1995 and 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention partnered with Kaiser Permanente to conduct a study on the correlation between ACES and status of health. More than 17,000 members of Kaiser’s Health Maintenance Organization completed a confidential survey regarding their childhood experiences and their current health and behavior. Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than 20 percent reported three or more ACEs.
What they also discovered was that there was a connection between the number of ACES one experiences as a child and the person’s quality of health in adulthood. The more ACES one experience, the more health problems or unhealthy lifestyle practices, such as smoking, substance abuse, etc., one also experiences. Lost wages, increased medical costs and dependency on tax-supported programs are all associated with chronic health problems. As such, it is in our best interest to address these while children are still young and malleable.
We may not be able to change some of the actual conditions although we strive daily to ease the burdens that come with poverty and protect children from abuse. The best thing we can do for children living with ACES is to help them build resilience. This is the ability to weather life’s storms positively, creatively and bouncing back. It means having coping strategies and having outlets for the stress that comes during challenging times.
This can only be done in the context of a relationship with a caring adult. Maybe we need to be that adult to a child in our classroom, in our Scout troop or on our team. ACES are not always apparent, but caring adults stand out in a crowd. When a child acts out, withdraws or doesn’t try, ask yourself “What might be going on with this child?” All behavior tells us something and sometimes it is a cry for help.
And those after-school programs? They provide a safe environment for children, socialization and academic enrichment — things that build resilience. There you go, kids!
Editor’s note: Denise Continenza is the family and consumer sciences educator with Penn State Extension, Lehigh and Northampton counties.