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Adverse Childhood Experiences: trauma can impact kids for life

Alyssa Van Duyse

Ellyn Rivers/Creative Commons
Ellyn Rivers/Creative Commons

Maybe it’s just a couple of words. You were angry. You lashed out. Your child was reprimanded, and she endured your criticisms.

Or maybe your spouse got frustrated. He had a bad day and he let it be known, loudly, when he got home from work. A shouting match ensued.

Little ears were listening.

Or maybe it was more. Maybe your child was physically or sexually abused. She was bullied. She was neglected. She was hurt.

Recent studies indicate that these Adverse Childhood Experiences have been linked to a range of negative outcomes in adulthood.

But they don’t have to be. There is another way, said Rhonda Brown, director of 3D Community Health–Body.Mind.Spirit, a service line of HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals.

“Right now the goal is education,” Brown said. “If parents realize that what their children endure now will largely affect them later in life, maybe they will make different choices and stop the cycle.”

Brown and other community organizations are working together to educate parents and the public about what these traumatic experiences can lead to years down the road.

“If parents realize that what their children endure now will largely affect them later in life, maybe they will make different choices and stop the cycle. – Rhonda Brown, director of 3D Community Health – Body.Mind.Spirit

Early experiences have a broad and profound impact, according to a Wisconsin Children’s Trust Fund report titled, “Adverse Childhood Experiences in Wisconsin.” Everyday interactions and experiences in infancy and childhood greatly influence the developing brain and subsequent emotional, cognitive, social and neurobiological functioning.

“In short, these early experiences affect the way we view ourselves and our world, the way we learn, how we cope with life’s stressors and how we form relationships throughout our lives,” the report states. “Unfortunately, negative experiences can lead to poorer mental and physical health, poorer school and work success, and lower socioeconomic status in adulthood.”

Statistically, the more adverse childhood experiences that kids endure, the more likely they are as adults to face depression, cancer, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholism, and a whole host of other issues, including early death.

But children can rebound quickly in a corrected environment, said Courtney Spindler, psychotherapist at HSHS Sacred Heart Behavioral Health and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital’s L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center in Chippewa Falls.

“It is important to remember that children are extremely resilient,” she said. “In therapy I help children and their families learn how to manage feelings, troubling thoughts and behaviors, (and) learn ways to cope and to develop plans for feeling safe in the future.”

Spindler also provides the child and parents with resources and information about trauma and the effects of trauma. Those resources can help children and their families cope better.

“It can help them understand that they are not alone,” she said. “By not talking about traumatic events, it can prevent healing.”

Jennifer Rombalski, director and health officer of the Chippewa County Department of Public Health, said the county and the hospital have been working together to educate the public on this topic for a year. In October, county and hospital colleagues planned and implemented the Children, Youth and Families Committee Summit, which was heavily focused on Adverse Childhood Experiences.

“I am extremely passionate about (Adverse Childhood Experiences) because the research shows that if we focus our efforts on ACEs we can prevent many expensive and challenging health conditions later in life,” Rombalski said. “The health department is beginning to ask about ACEs with clients we serve as a means of better service and assessing impact.”

Brown, the hospitals’ 3D Community Health leader, said it’s not about placing blame, it’s about shining a spotlight on an issue that can be avoided or problems that can be solved.

“Kids learn what they live, so how can we expect parents who have lived through a lot of difficulties, to not carry that forward?” she said. “People are demonstrating those behaviors because it’s what they’ve learned.

“There is no textbook for raising children. Often we don’t know enough about our own selves to know what we’re doing with our own kids. We’re asking people to do it differently. We’re asking people to change.”

Alyssa Van Duyse is a marketing specialists with HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital and HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital, a community launch partner for Chippewa Valley Family.