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BLOG: Can abusive parental relationships damage children?

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Question: I got out of an abusive relationship last year. My kids are now 2 and 4 years old, and after the divorce, they don’t have any contact with their dad. I didn’t think they would remember anything about all the yelling and abuse because he only ever hit me and not the kids, but I recently heard about this adverse childhood experience study that says my kids might grow up to have bad health because of it. The children and I are doing great, but I am so nervous that this is going to affect them for the rest of their lives. Please tell me what I can do!

Answer: Reading about the adverse childhood experiences study can be scary and lead to the concerns you may have for your children. It is true that these experiences are risk factors that can impact a child’s physical and mental health for the rest of their lives.

The study by Kaiser Permanente and Centers for Disease Control Prevention used a 10-question survey to look at abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. (Click here to answer the 10 questions and get your score.) When those experiences are chronic, meaning they continue without intervention, negative health consequences are possible.

Be a buffer and build resilience

The good news is we can strengthen a child’s capacity to build resilience — the ability to bounce back and receive support — so these experiences have far less impact, if any. For example, if you create a safe, protected space for your children, it acts as a buffer. Buffering happens when an adult gives comfort and security to a child who is experiencing a trauma, lessening or eliminating the lifetime impact from an experience.

The chances are your children will do very well if you are able to give them a safe space where they can talk about scary or positive events and glean a deep feeling of connection and nurturing. What’s concerning is if no one is there to support and protect them.

Implicit vs. explicit memories

The reason comes down to memories and how they are stored and experienced by young children. A memory can be implicit or explicit. Memories are typically implicit for young children younger than 3, which means the experiences occurred before a child can put a story to the event with a beginning, middle and ending. This memory becomes a feeling with no cognitive understanding. That feeling can become pervasive, reacting as if the event is still happening or is going to happen again. The child can get triggered for what seems like no reason at all.

On the other hand, an explicit memory occurs when a full story can be told with a beginning, middle and ending. This represents a higher order of thinking and cognitive ability, which typically begins to develop after age 3. This means the child has the ability to cognitively process the explicit memory. This paves the way for understanding and healing.

Transform your child’s environment

The most important point: The body wants to heal. So to help a young child get through a traumatic, toxic-stress experience, the adult needs to provide a safe, nurturing place for that child to grow and thrive.

Through child-directed play, positive and pleasurable experiences, respect and consistency, you can help transform your children’s toxic environment into a positive and safe one. The younger the child, the easier it is to change their thinking about a traumatic event. All it takes is one adult to be the buffer to ensure your children grow up safe and strong. 

Jane Robinson, an infant mental health specialist, co-founded Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach County.

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