Helping the Helpless: Adverse Childhood Experiences, Trauma, and Ways Forward

We can all sit and wring our hands about the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACES) on children’s brain development and future trajectories, but what can we DO about it? As I’ve continued to track down and review research on familial substance use disorder, trauma and resilience, I’ve been curious about both programs which address the needs of preschoolers directly, and programs which help to train the people who work with children and families impacted by SUD.

Today was my lucky day! I interviewed two amazing women who are actively working to support children and families affected by trauma, in very different ways. Hearing their perspectives and insights placed the empirical research I’ve been doing into a real-world context and I look forward to processing the many layers of wisdom I encountered and framing them within my still burning research questions: What do early childhood educators need to know about substance use disorder in order to better meet the needs of the young children they work with AND: what role does stigma play in how these children and their families are included in our field’s embrace of diversity?

Tricia DeYoung is a Trainer at Familylinks, an agency which provides comprehensive mental and behavioral health services to families in need throughout Southwestern PA. Drawing on her extensive background working with the Boys Town Family Model, and the Sanctuary Model, Ms. DeYoung provides training to social service personnel and educators on many issues related to trauma, and trauma-informed care.

During our interview, I asked Tricia what she wished that people could understand about trauma. She pondered for a moment, and then replied: “It’s really two-pronged: 1) Trauma can result from a singular event…it doesn’t have to be chronic. This singular event can also change the way the brain functions. And, 2) People who have experienced trauma process things differently. It’s not a choice. Their brains work differently.”

Liz Wasel is the Child Development Specialist and Volunteer Coordinator at Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment program where mothers can live with their children while they are in treatment. Each family has its own apartment, and while the mothers engage in a rigorous treatment program during the day, their children either go to school, or, attend Liz’s wonderful child development program on site. Drawing on her early intervention background at DART (Discovery, Intervention, Referral and Tracking), Liz, her co-workers and volunteers provide children 8 weeks to 5 years with a caring, safe and developmentally appropriate early childhood environment based on their individualized needs.

I asked Liz, towards the end of our interview, what is the one thing she wished people could know that might reduce the stigma of substance use disorder and truly start to effect change. She thought for a minute and then stated: “I wish they could understand that no one wants to be an addict. No one chooses this disease.”

As I move forward with my research and my project, I wonder: what would YOU, as early childhood professionals and parents, like to know about working with young children impacted by substance use disorder and trauma?

A Hand FULL of ACES: The Plight of Young Children Living with Substance Use Disorder

What do you think of this? This info graphic summarizes a major and ongoing longitudinal study about how these adverse childhood experiences continue to impact people throughout their lives.

Notice that substance use disorder (SUD) tops even physical abuse in the percentage of children impacted. Add to that the statistical probability that, like other ACES, familial SUD often, though not always, entails additional ACES, such as abuse and neglect, and the impetus to address the needs of these children begins to take on paramount importance. Because the more ACES, the more likely it is that the individual will struggle with mental, emotional and physical challenges FOR THE REST OF HIS/HER LIFE…

Outside Looking In: What Do Teachers of Young Children Need to Know about Substance Use Disorder and the Stigma Attached To It?

Henry and Sam at the gate

What do we know about early childhood educators’ understanding of substance use disorder? As we’ve discussed previously in this blog, there are not a lot of resources out there for teachers working with children affected by familial substance use disorder (see Resources for a few suggestions about where to go for more information). But does this mean that teachers don’t understand it? And if they don’t, what kind of information will be most useful as they work with young children living with SUD?

My project over the next few months is to learn more about how living with substance use disorder affects the social, emotional and cognitive development of children under the age of six. I am especially interested in studying the family dynamics that have been identified in families where one or more caregiver has this disease, and how characteristic communication patterns may impact identity development and the child’s ability to succeed socially and academically in the childcare or school environment.

Since there seems to be limited information about this challenge targeted to early educators, I am interested in focusing on literature outside of the education field, specifically, in the fields of addictions and social work. I will be reporting on my findings in this blog.

I’ve also blogged about the stigma attached to substance use disorder and how it impacts parents (read about this here). Is there additional research that would help teachers to uncover their biases and so work more effectively with families and children affected by this disease? I’m interested in that, as well, and will be sharing whatever information I glean right here!

It’s time that we, as a society, got real about this public health crisis and how it is impacting our children. For all of us, in one way or another, are outside, looking in…and so are the children we care so much about.

Skewer the Stigma: In the wake of losing a star, an addict shares “who we are:” The message for all of us


One in four children is affected by the family disease of addiction/alcoholism. We know these kids. They are in our classrooms. Their parents may pick them up “a little late” from child care. They may come to parent conferences with a faint whiff of last night’s binge on their breaths. They may be the ones who always forget to sign the field trip form. Or not. They may be the ones you’d never suspect, until you read in the paper that they just got their 4th DUI and are headed for jail.

And:, to be honest….isn’t it hard not to judge them? To wonder how ANYONE could choose alcohol or drugs over their children? As the author of the blog I’ve shared below says: “We love our children fiercely. Yes, we would change “For the sake of the children” if only we could.”

Have a read and a think  as you read some reflections about substance use disorder from the perspective of a parent in recovery, following the unexpected death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. We can only support the children we work with by supporting their families. And one of the best ways to support a family suffering from this wretched disease is to bring it out of the shadows, and out of the shame.

The Beggar's Bakery

Philip_Seymour_Hoffman_2011 Rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman.

He had enjoyed 23 years of clean time, previous to his relapse.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

In the announcement of his recent death from a drug overdose, CNN refers to Hoffman as “everyman,”  and indeed, he was extraordinarily talented while still remaining personable. I know in my head that people with two decades of sobriety “fall off the wagon,” but it is always jarring to my heart when I hear about those occasions. Addictions will not be taken for granted.

There seems to be a slight shock that Hoffman, who suffered the same disease as Amy Winehouse, died from the same disease. His spin was not that of a train wreck, but of an accomplished and revered performer.

The article goes on to describe Hoffman as an actor so versatile that he “could be anybody.”  I’m not sure the author of the piece really appreciates how…

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We built this baby….

I’ve been watching my neighbors build their garage over the past year. First, there were months of preparation: planning what they hoped it would look like and the kind of space and functionality it would offer; interviewing contractors; choosing the proper materials; talking; looking over sketches…To me, as an outsider, this was mostly invisible, although I cheered them on as they shared snippets as we talked over the garden fence.

Then, late this fall, the work began. A highly skilled team of construction workers came every day, and as my dog and I watched out of the window, they carefully dug the footer, and laid a foundation. Day after day, the workers were there, and, to be honest, I didn’t really SEE much progress. Most days, if my dog hadn’t gone crazy barking at the trucks coming and going and the sound of power tools, I wouldn’t have known they were doing anything.

Then, suddenly, this week: walls went up. A roof was trussed. The building took shape. I was shocked. How did THAT all happen?

And I thought about how similar the process is to quality early childhood care and education. So much has to happen before we “see” the results. But without that careful planning and foundation building, baby’s brains won’t offer the solid architecture necessary for lifelong learning and healthy living.

Below you’ll find a detailed infographic about what building a baby’s brain can produce, one neural network at a time.

What will you do today to build a baby’s brain? Because really: if we can spend months planning and building the foundation of a garage, don’t our children deserve at least that much? Doesn’t our society, too?

early childhood development

The Power of Story (OR: Once Upon An Executive Function…)

It’s true. I’m a children’s book snob. I was “that teacher” who ranted against the story-less drivel that was supposed to teach my first-graders phonics. If a book doesn’t touch heart, mind and soul, I pretty much don’t care if it’s got pretty pictures or is on the bestseller list or targets the “at” family like no other. Children deserve Story, with a capital S. They need Story not just to learn literacy, but to learn life.

And so of course, as I started to research young children living with substance use disorder, I went straight to children’s literature. What I have found so far ranges from ok-ish, to bleccchhhh. Now, I haven’t read these with any kids, and, who knows, children living with this disease might connect with them. However, most fell into the category of books that were written for a purpose, rather than to tell a story (or to impart information, a whole other genre). Here’s a sample bibliography from the Betty Ford Center, which is where I started my search.

This got me thinking. What kind of “real” books would touch vulnerable children’s hearts and help them to feel part of something bigger, something warm, something authentic? What kinds of books could offer them ways of building resilience as they wrestled with the here and now? I mean, isn’t that what good literature DOES?

Take the beautifully illustrated Al and Teddy, by Neil Waldman (who, in addition to being an artist and author, founded the Fred Dolan Arts Academy in the Bronx). The video clip above touches on its visual appeal, but the story, of two brothers living in a less than perfect urban world, offers insight into power: the power of art and the imagination to solve problems, the power of sibling attachment, the power of forgiveness, and…the power of change. It is a real story that touches on real pain, which, don’t kid yourself: children experience (read about the author’s childhood experience which inspired the book in “The Story Behind the Story”). Yet it does so in a way that is respectful, grounded and magical…all at once. (AND…there’s a Teacher’s Guide that has engaging and standards-based classroom activities for different ages, too!).

Soon after I discovered Al and Teddy, I ran across a wonderful resource from Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making team. It is a list of 42 Books and Tips That Promote Life Skills related to Executive Function.

I will admit: I was skeptical. Was this another listing of cutesy books about focus, self-control, perspective-taking and challenges, written by some thinktank of neuroscientists and educators…rather than by authors with stories that burned to be told?

NO! It is a resource, divided by both Executive Function Life Skill and age (birth-2, 3-5, 6-8) of classic and new children’s books which have both critics’ and children’s resounding stamps of approval as great STORIES. It includes books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Making Connections), and The Snowy Day (Self-Directed Engaged Learning), The Carrot Seed (Focus) and Knuffle Bunny (Taking on Challenges). Each book is linked to a downloadable Tip Sheet which has suggestions for specific ways parents and teachers can talk with children as they read the book, and how this actively and intentionally promotes each facet of brain development. The Tip Sheets are also available in Spanish.

This resource is evidence-based. It promotes the executive function skills that are foundational to not only academic success but to social competence and resilience. It’s free (see here for a discussion of why this is so critical when looking at programs that would benefit young children living with SUD) And: it gives busy teachers and parents another reason to share great stories with children.

My amazing (adult) daughter discovered a treasure when we were shopping in December. Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal isn’t on Mind in the Making’s list, but I think it offers a lighthearted way to talk about perspective-taking with children. Take a look at the trailer, and let me know what you think! (There’s even a Teacher’s Guide to go with it!)

How do YOU use children’s literature to develop executive function skills and resilience? What books can we add to this growing list? Please comment below or join in the conversation on our page on Facebook!

The Lobster in the Pot: Or…why I’m writing this blog!

We’ve all heard the story about the frog. You know the one: Once upon a time, there was a frog. The bird, or fox, or witch wants to cook him and eat him for dinner. But Frog is smart. When he is put in boiling water, he leaps out immediately and hops away as fast as his legs will carry him. So, his hungry nemesis decides to trick him, and invites him to swim in a large pot of cool water. Frog loves it! He has so much fun swimming around that he does not notice that gradually the temperature of the water is rising, as the fire beneath it heats up. By the time the water reaches boiling: it is too late to escape. Poor Frog is cooked! And frog legs are on the menu of the bad guy.

This metaphor has been used for all kinds of political, and social purposes; google it and be amazed by its prevalence in the cultural fabric of our society. Never one to want to be cliché, I’m offering an alternative image: that of the LOBSTER (mostly because a brilliant friend of mine posted great pictures of her children’s creative costumes on Facebook).

Children living in families where substance abuse occurs are like the lobster. The pot of water where they swim is the only home they’ve ever known. They don’t know that other little lobsters don’t have to watch Mommy fall asleep from her pills BEFORE she puts her baby lobsters to bed, and that some Daddies actually remember their promise to take their lobster kids to the park, rather than deciding to spend the weekend at the bar. The little lobsters adapt, and their behaviors and thinking help them to “normalize” all the dysfunction they are immersed in.

Until… the chaos becomes too heated and those protective mechanisms quit working. And that’s when things reach the boiling point for our little lobsters. They begin to act out in school, stop learning, withdraw from their friends, and, if statistics are to believed, are at high risk to begin using drugs and alcohol themselves as young adolescents.

How do we help these little lobsters stay safe? According to some estimates, one in four children lives in a home affected by substance abuse. Do the math. In your class of twenty 4 year olds, you may have five children at risk. We have learned ways to keep children physically safe: Call Childline if there is evidence of abuse; don’t let them leave with a parent who’s been drinking. But what can we, as early childhood educators, do to protect children’s developing brains from the toxic stress of living with this family disease?

Stay tuned. Imagination on the Move will explore research-based resources that will help build resilience and keep these children out of hot water as they play, create, and channel the phenomenal power of their imaginations.