Raising kids with grit…and an interview with Jane Stevens of ACEs Too High

by Rita Brhel on December 22, 2015

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siblings-937393-mAttachment Parenting International (API) is directly involved in building resilience in communities across the nation and around the world through its local API Support Groups and accredited API Leaders by supporting secure parent-child attachments.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important secure attachments are. To be sure, resilience is something we all want for our children — actually, resilience is something all children need.

This scientific-sounding term, “resilience,” may seem really abstract and difficult to define. Perhaps you’ve heard of resilience by its other names. Synonyms include: grit, hardiness, toughness, adaptability, rebound, perseverance, tenacity.

In the most basic definition, resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. I like to think of it as emotional toughness.

It’s the ability to rebound from frustrations and disappointments, to not get lost in life’s inevitable valleys between the high points, to persevere — all the while staying true to oneself, remaining passionate about life and never giving up hope.

Secure parent-child attachments and resilience-building go hand-in-hand. Positive discipline, coupled with warmth and nurturing, makes for an ideal child-raising atmosphere.

There is no need to expose our children to harsh situations with the misguided intention to raise them with grit. True grit — resilience — is not a mean-spirited or emotionally avoidant individual who has grown up building walls around his or her vulnerability. True grit is the ability to feel all emotions and to know how to manage healthy responses to those emotions, no matter the situation, without feeling a need to avoid or destructively act-out his or her strong emotions.

API helps parents learn how to develop this true grit within their children. API is a resilience-building resource, funded entirely by donations, yet offered free to all parents no matter their income class, life circumstance or location. Evidence-based parenting — like the approach advocated through API — is one of several areas of community-based resilience-building practices.

jane stevensJane Stevens, founder of ACEs Too High and the ACEs Connection Network, elaborates on resilience and its opposite — trauma — in this API interview.

API: ACEs are integral to understanding resilience. ACEs basically outline the childhood environments that are more likely to predispose people to grow up without developing a high level of resilience. Jane, what are ACEs?

JANE: ACEs are Adverse Childhood Experiences.

ACEs usually refers to the 10 types of childhood adversity that were measured in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, a family member who’s an alcoholic or addicted to other drugs, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, witnessing a mother being abused, a family member in prison, and loss of a parent through separation or divorce.

That doesn’t mean that there are no other types of childhood trauma. There are, of course: living in a war zone, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing violence outside the home, and others. It’s just that in the ACE Study, only 10 were measured.

API: Thank you, Jane, for providing this quiz for readers to learn their own ACE score (as well as their own Resilience score).

JANE: Many people who learn about the ACE Study and who calculate their own ACE score say they’re relieved, especially if they have a high ACE score. They say that their life finally makes sense.

They also understand that they’re not bad. They coped as best they could under dire circumstances. And knowing that they’re not bad people opens the opportunity for them to change their lives. It’s quite empowering information.

API: Looking at your website, we can see that higher ACE scores are associated with adult alcoholism, chronic depression, perpetrating domestic violence, smoking, being raped, suicide attempts, teen sex and pregnancy, employee absenteeism and job performance. From your website:

“At the same time that the ACE Study was being done, parallel research on kids’ brains found that toxic stress physically damages a child’s developing brain. …

When children are overloaded with stress hormones, they’re in flight, fright or freeze mode. They can’t learn in school. They often have difficulty trusting adults or developing healthy relationships with peers (i.e., they become loners). To relieve their anxiety, depression, guilt, shame and/or inability to focus, they turn to easily available biochemical solutions — nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine — or activities in which they can escape their problems — high-risk sports, proliferation of sex partners and work/over-achievement. (e.g. Nicotine reduces anger, increases focus and relieves depression. Alcohol relieves stress.)

Using drugs or overeating or engaging in risky behavior leads to consequences as a direct result of this behavior. For example, smoking can lead to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or lung cancer. Overeating can lead to obesity and diabetes. In addition, there is increasing research that shows that severe and chronic stress leads to bodily systems producing an inflammatory response that leads to disease.”

This is significant on an individual level, so what does this do to a community?

JANE: Communities whose residents have high ACE scores and few resilience factors are difficult places to live.

Essentially, the community is in a state of constant and chronic traumatic stress. This means that it’s difficult for people to thrive, or to raise children who will thrive.

API: What are your hopes in helping people learn more about ACEs, their own ACE and Resilience scores, and creating a network of resilience-building groups?

JANE: Once people learn about the consequences of ACEs, the effects of toxic stress and that trauma-informed practices and building resilience can create healthy individuals, families, communities and systems, they can never look at a homeless person without seeing an abused child.

They can never look at a young man in juvenile detention without wondering why the schools he attended did not intervene in his journey from the classroom to prison.

They can never look at communities without wondering if they are implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices. And if they are not, they begin asking: “How can we start?”

API: It’s wonderful that people like Jane Stevens are working to raise awareness of ACEs and the effect of traumatic childhood stress. In addition, through her ACEs Connection Network, she is working to guide connections between trauma-informed and resilience-building groups to help individuals with high ACE scores find pathways to healing. This is much needed.

API works at the issue of trauma and resilience from another angle — prevention. It’s clear that the key to positively impacting a community is to first address the family, to get to the heart of the matter — the parent-child attachment relationship — in order to both prevent high ACE scores and to help our children develop resilience.

On Jane’s website, she writes about how resilience fits in with ACEs:

“Fortunately, brains and lives are somewhat plastic. The appropriate integration of resilience factors born out of ACE concepts — such as asking for help, developing trusting relationships, forming a positive attitude, listening to feelings — can help people improve their lives.”

This is exactly how children are raised in evidence-based parenting approaches, such as is advocated by API.

Peace coverRead the entire API interview with Jane Stevens in The Attached Family‘s online “Nurturing Peace” issue.

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Rita Brhel (161 Posts)

Rita Brhel, BS, CLC, API Leader, is the Executive Editor for Attachment Parenting International. She lives with her husband and 3 children, ages 10, 8 and 5, near Hastings, NE, USA, where she works as a WIC Breastfeeding Counselor and a Domestic Violence Survivor Advocate. She also writes for various publications, including Mothering and La Leche League's New Beginnings.

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