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Guest op-ed: Why is my child acting out?

By Charlotte Kiefer, Luis Torres and Peter Best - | Oct 7, 2021

Children experience many biological and chemical changes while growing. Some begin to act more withdrawn, irritable, or sad. If this is the case, they may be experiencing the effects of ACEs. Adverse Childhood Experiences exist among all populations worldwide; not a single race, ethnicity, or nationality is immune to them. ACEs are childhood household experiences before the age of 18 that affect adult health and wellbeing. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for adverse health outcomes later in life. There are 10 different identified categories of things that may cause ACEs — these include experiencing abuse or neglect, witnessing traumatic events, living through natural disasters, poverty, living with a family member who has mental illness, or witnessing parents’ divorce. Children’s symptoms may include nightmares, irritable mood, outbursts, avoidance, lack of interest, sexually acting out, being aggressive, or having suicidal thoughts.

Many parents attribute these symptoms to delinquency or disobedience. In reality, these are signs that the child has been through one, if not more, traumatic events. Each ACE a person experiences adds to their health outcomes. To read in greater detail about ACEs and what we can do to prevent them or build resiliency, visit the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Violence Prevention website.

Even though ACES are widely prevalent and can have severe effects, there is hope. While there is no way to ensure your child will never experience anything traumatic, parents can build their children’s resilience and prevent ACEs. To do this, surround your children with a robust support system by helping your child build strong, healthy relationships with adults around them — family, friends, teachers, and mentors. Engage your child in activities –sports, after-school clubs, and time with children their age. Even if you cannot afford structured teams or activities, taking your children to play and engage with other children is an essential addition to their life and development.

If your child does experience a traumatic event, you can do something. It will help if you allow your child time to process the event in a way that works for them. Create a safe space for them to speak to you and other members of their support system about the event. Connect them to medical care and mental health treatment services if needed. Doing these things can help mitigate and lessen the long-term effects ACEs are known to cause.

Perhaps the most crucial skill for parents to learn to help their children is communicating with them. Children often do not disclose their trauma to others because they do not understand it. They fear they will get in trouble or be dismissed or they fear their family’s reaction. Ask challenging questions about what your child may have experienced and how they are doing in such a way that invites your child to communicate openly with you. We cannot control everything, but you can always listen to your children and their needs without judgment, and that alone will help limit the effects of ACEs. Even if we cannot control the environment or prevent all possible trauma, we can affect how we help our children respond to it.

To best provide support for a child victim, a parent should listen calmly and validate anything the child feels. You should avoid interrogating your child about the abuse; if any information is given, listen and allow your child to say things in their own words. Children also need to know that what has happened is not their fault. When speaking to your child, parents often mistake saying “when this happens…” not realizing the problematic situation they are putting the child in. Often something has already happened; they have already been the victim of abuse. Instead, you should be curious and say , “tell me about something like this that has happened to you.” Then a child can tell you about anything that has come close to being a traumatic event to them to be aware and provide support. Talking openly with your child about abuse is the best way to protect your child from further abuse. Reassuring your child of their right to be safe, to speak up, to ask for help, and to trust their feelings will increase their resilience to trauma in the future.

To report abuse, use the Child Abuse/Neglect Hotline: 1.855.323.3237

Charlotte Kiefer, Luis Torres and Peter Best, MPH, are second-year graduate students studying social work at the University of Utah. Due to the rise in child abuse cases in Utah, and ongoing traumatic environmental events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors say the subject of ACEs is relevant for every Utah resident.

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