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Local View: Children need our help to get past the pandemic

From the column: "The only way to actually decrease adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is to improve parenting skills. Other interventions can mitigate the negative impacts of ACES, but none actually decrease their occurrence."

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Randall Enos / Cagle Cartoons

The pandemic has revealed the developmental fragility of many of our at-risk youth. The serious, negative impact of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, is well established. It presented a serious challenge to children’s developmental health before the pandemic. It is far more severe now.

In 2020, the National Institute of Health reported that the pandemic-related stresses of parental job loss, disrupted work and school schedules, the compacting of families at home, and social isolation worsened the level of trauma for a large segment of our youth. The institute recommended the pandemic should be considered an additional ACE for children already coping with complex trauma.

We are now seeing an unprecedented 24%, almost one in four, of St. Louis County children experiencing four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). This level of stress is toxic for most children.

We know the predictable outcomes of too many adverse childhood experiences. Collectively, they have a detrimental impact on early brain development. Children exposed to too much stress will experience an impaired capacity to process verbal information, pay attention, focus on tasks, remember, and recall. The impact on learning and behavior is obvious. These students will experience preventable school failure.

For decades, the rate of Minnesota students reporting four or more ACEs has matched the percentage of students who fail to graduate. We should worry when we see one out of four students experiencing four or more ACEs this school year. Ask any teacher!

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To address this challenge, we need to look beyond the symptoms of school misbehavior and learning difficulties. We need to implement practical, corrective approaches to prevent and mitigate underlying trauma before long-term healthy development and school success are negatively impacted. We need to address the core issue of ensuring that all kids in our community have an opportunity for healthy development.

The only way to actually decrease adverse childhood experiences is to improve parenting skills. Other interventions can mitigate the negative impacts of ACEs, but none actually decrease their occurrence. ACEs are often transmitted from one generation to the next. Parents do the best they can but, in most cases, all they know about parenting is what they experienced as kids.

Unfortunately, many parents have not experienced positive parenting themselves. These parents need more than an invitation to a workshop. They need the support and guidance of trained child care providers, teachers, youth workers, and other family-service professionals who already are connected to their families and children. We need to provide kids and parents an encouraging, trauma-sensitive community.

Child care providers, school faculty, and youth-program workers can be trained in trauma-informed practice. With those skills, these committed professionals will not only help mitigate early-childhood trauma, they can also help make the same skills accessible to parents. Trauma-informed practices address the core issue of healthy development.

There is a better way to parent, and we can make it available to every family.

Dean Grace of Duluth is a retired children’s mental health professional.

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Dean Grace

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