The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Stress

We can help to create safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for kids.

Many children are exposed to abuse, neglect and family dysfunction which experts often refer to as toxic stress. But why can one child who encounters toxic stress move beyond it and lead a healthy life while another cannot?

That’s the question researchers set out to answer in one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being. The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, is called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study.

Originally, the study included more than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members from Southern California who received physical exams. The members completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences (abuse, neglect and family dysfunction including divorce, incarceration, substance abuse and mental health issues) and current health status and behaviors.

Researchers found that the effects of adverse childhood experiences hinder the formation of stable and healthy adult relationships.

Plus, those experiences increase the risk for:

  •  Experiencing substance abuse;
  •  Depression;
  •  Cardiovascular disease;
  •  Diabetes;
  •  Cancer; and
  •  Premature death.

Conversely, healthy relationships in the home, school and community nurture a child’s physical and emotional growth. In short, children need these types of relationships from birth forward in order to thrive and become productive adults.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a staggering 50 percent of the 73 million children living in the United States will experience violence, abuse, crime and psychological trauma before they turn 18.

The National Survey of Children’s Health, conducted by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, surveyed parents of 95,677 children age 17 and under. It asked whether their child had ever seen or heard “any parents, guardians or any other adults in the home slap, hit, kick, punch or beat each other up.” The exposure rate for children living with their two married biological parents was 19 out of every 1,000 children. For children living with a divorced or separated mother, the rate of exposure was seven times higher (144 children per 1,000). These comparisons are adjusted for differences across age, sex, race, family income, poverty status and parent’s education level.

In 2012, Tennessee conducted its own ACEs survey through the CDC to see how adverse childhood experiences affected the state’s general population. It found that about 42 percent of residents experienced two or more ACEs. And, 1 in 5 Tennesseeans has experienced at least three categories of ACEs. Emotional abuse, substance abuse and parental separation or divorce are the most common adverse experiences statewide.

There are many opportunities to learn about adverse childhood experiences and their impact on education, the workplace and our community.

In addition to learning how to help create safe and stable homes for children and recognize the signs of ACEs in adults, it’s crucial to discover how to promote healing for those who have been exposed to toxic stress.

Tennessee is launching one of the first comprehensive public policy shifts focused on prevention because preventing ACEs in young children before they experience ongoing “toxic stress” can actually lower taxpayer and community costs. Learning about the impact of ACEs can greatly benefit families, companies, nonprofits, agencies and other community and religious organizations.

Since we are all responsible for the well-being of our community’s children, we can promote healthy child development together. For starters, we can help to create safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments that kids need.

Life Without a Father

Sometimes those left behind feel like a piece of them is missing.

In 2001, Regina R. Robertson hated her day job, so she was very thankful (and relieved) when she was ultimately fired. She also felt free to pursue a new path, as a writer. Having begun her career in the music industry, she contacted some of her former colleagues for help. She started out by writing artist bios and press releases. Within a year, she was meeting with magazine editors, including one who told her to “write what you know.”

Robertson’s first national assignment led her to interview three friends, whose names she changed, and write a piece about their experiences of life growing up without a father. After “Where’s Daddy?” ran in the October 2002 issue of Honey magazine, she received calls from other friends who asked why she hadn’t thought to include them in the article. At that point, Robertson had the first thought of writing a book on the topic.

Over the last 15 years, and while enduring rejection from agents and publishers, she spoke with many women who had stories to share.

Robertson decided to focus her book on three areas of father absence: divorce, death and distance.

“Throughout the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of people, but writing these kinds of personal stories was quite different from writing celebrity profiles or entertainment features,” says Robertson, who has served as West Coast editor of Essence magazine since 2006. “When I spoke with friends about the project, some suggested that I try reaching out to women like fitness expert, Gabrielle Reece, and MSNBC host, Joy-Ann Reid, both of whom had grown up without their fathers. I wasn’t opposed to the idea, but I thought I’d have to cut through layers and layers of the red tape to reach them. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.”

Robertson not only got through to those women, but they, and others, were very excited to share their stories.

Her book is called He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories, and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers (Agate Bolden).

“I can’t believe it,” Robertson says. “This project has been such a labor of love and so far, the response has been phenomenal.”

“One young woman, Nisa Rashid, shares her story of growing up while her father was in prison. Television writer, Jenny Lee, writes about her father’s suicide*, when she was 20. Simone I. Smith, a jewelry designer, talks about her relationship with her late father – a loving, though troubled, man who battled addiction. Reid, who shared her story on Facebook after her father passed away, signed on to write foreword.”

For Emmy-winning actress, Regina King, witnessing her parents’ divorce was very painful, as was her father’s eventual estrangement. Years later, after enduring her own divorce, she realized that she and her ex-husband were not connecting as co-parents. Eventually, the pair agreed that being divided wasn’t healthy for their son. As a result, they began to take the necessary steps to work together and redefine their family.

Sarah Tomlinson, author of Good Girl, also contributes to the book. She gives a raw account of her lifelong quest for a relationship with her father and her own self-destructive behavior. Tomlinson titled her essay, “The Girl at the Window,” which references the place she sat and waited, for hours, on the days he promised to visit.

Robertson even shares her own story about never knowing her father.

“Usually, when I sit down to write, I agonize over every detail. When I wrote the introduction to the book, I was surprised by how quickly the words came to me: My mother raised me on her own, from day one. She’s the only parent I’ve ever had. My father was never in the picture – not for one second, minute or hour. I never met him. There were times when I wondered how a man could leave his family, his kid, and not look back, but I didn’t obsess over my father’s absence. I definitely thought about it, though.”

Robertson is happy and surprised by the way He Never Came Home has already touched people. She hopes her book will help others know they are not alone.

“I hope I’ve written and edited the book that I wished I’d had as a teen,” Robertson shares. “This collection of essays is for all of the fatherless girls and women who’ve ever thought, as I once did, that a piece of them was missing. Life has taught me that no matter the circumstances you’re born into, you are responsible for steering your ship. If I can do it, you can, too . . . and you will. It just takes time.”

*If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are a number of websites and organizations with excellent resources for you. HelpGuide is a great place to start, along with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

If someone asked you about your family history, would you know how your great grandparents met or what life was like for them growing up?

Chris Cummings’ mom was diagnosed with early-onset dementia when she was 48. He saw firsthand how a family member’s memories can slip away and impact families.

“My mom struggled with multiple sclerosis for many years before the dementia started,” says Cummings. “I took on the role of caregiver to her at a very early age. When she passed away in 2012, even though I spent endless hours with her, I realized there was so much I didn’t know but wanted to know about my mom, yet it was too late.”

While visiting his grandmother, Shirley, Cummings asked how her parents had fallen in love. She had no idea, which seemed odd since she knew all the family history.

“That question caused her to call her sister to see if she knew the answer,” Cummings says. “She did not. Grandmother went on to ask her brother, who did know. Apparently, my great grandfather, Sidney, was on a trip in Texas headed home to Louisiana when his car broke down in Jasper. He didn’t have enough money to get his car fixed so he got a job at the local five-and-dime. A few days later, my great grandmother Minnie walked in the store. They met, fell in love and got married.”

By asking a simple question, Cummings discovered an important piece of family history. This sent Cummings, who actually has a law degree, down a path that ultimately led him to launch greetingStory. He had already created Pass it Down, a digital storytelling platform. He shared his latest idea with genealogy experts about reinventing the greeting card to help families preserve treasured memories the old-fashioned way.

“Experts in the field were intrigued because there is this huge technology gap in families,” Cummings shares. “While people have videos, they often don’t have the written stories that make up their family history. Our concept was to help people capture family memories one greeting card at a time. We also know that loneliness and isolation are huge issues for the aging population. We believed we could use the greetings cards to bring families together and reduce the loneliness and isolation.”

Cummings and his wife married in November 2015. The next month, they moved to Chattanooga because they heard it was a great place to start a business. They raised money to build the company and went through the GIGTANK 365 accelerator for startups. They actually entered Miller Lite’s Tap The Future contest to find the most innovative company in the country, and they finished in the top six applicants out of more than 15,000 companies. The couple first presented Pass It Down in front of FUBU CEO and Shark Tank investor Daymond John at the semifinals in Atlanta and won. Although they did not ultimately win the contest, they walked away with $22,000 and used it to create greetingStory.

“We hope the cards will be the easiest way to sit down with a loved one or friend and spark a conversation about their life stories and help them record their stories,” Cummings says. “I have had so many people tell me how emotional it is to see their grandfather’s signature or that seeing their grandmother’s handwriting brings back so many memories. There is something very special about handwriting a story that is different from recording a video.”

The creatively-designed cards encourage loved ones to share important information. These sample questions offer a glimpse of what you can expect from them:

  • What do you want to be remembered for?

  • When is a time in your life when you had to make a stand?

  • What is a great lesson your parents taught you?

If you’re interested in preserving your family history, you can mail cards and return envelopes personally. When your family member answers the questions and mails the cards back to you, you will be actively preserving your family history one card at a time. In the process, you can spread joy and connectedness as you invite your loved ones to share their unique stories. Future generations will benefit from it as well.

How to Help Teens Have Healthy Relationships

You can teach them what they need to know.

What do teens think about healthy relationships these days? That’s what Dr. Richard Weissbourd, director of the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard and his team wanted to know. They set out to identify young people’s challenges and hopes, and who influences the way they think about relationships. Much of what they found surprised them.

“Based on the responses from our research with more than 3000 young adults and high school students, it is clear that we as a society are failing to prepare young people for perhaps the most important thing they will do in life – learn how to love and develop deep caring, healthy romantic relationships,” says Weissbourd.

Additionally, they found that most adults appear to do shockingly little to prevent or effectively address prejudice against women and sexual harassment among young people. These problems can infect both romantic relationships and many other areas of life.

Weissbourd was troubled that at least one-third of respondents in their most recent survey said:

  • It is rare to see a woman treated in an inappropriately sexualized manner on television;

  • Society has reached a point that there is no more double standard against women; and

  • The issue of sexual assault receives too much attention.

“Another finding I think parents will find most interesting – while parents are uptight about having the sex talk with their teen, 70 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds told us they wished they had received more information from their parents about how to have healthy relationships, including how to have a more mature relationship, how to deal with breakups, how to begin a relationship and how to avoid getting hurt in a relationship.”

On the positive side, it appears that teens and adults tend to greatly overestimate the size of the “hook-up culture.”

Weissbourd believes one of the biggest takeaways from this research is that a high percentage of young people want guidance about developing healthy relationships.

“I want parents to begin conversations with their teens about love,” Weissbourd says. “The media promotes so many misconceptions about what love looks like. We need to be teaching young people the difference between attraction, infatuation and love.”

Weissbourd believes we should help young people find answers to the following questions:

  • Why do people who are unhealthy for us also attract us?
  • How do you know when you are in love?
  • Why and how can romantic relationships become deeply meaningful and gratifying?
  • How can the nature of a romantic relationship and the nature of love itself change over a lifetime?

If you’re a parent, the report also encourages you to:

  • Teach your kids what it means to be respectful in a romantic relationship. Specifically identify what harassment looks like and what it means to be caring, and discuss the characteristics of a vibrant romantic relationship.

  • Step in and proactively address the qualities of a healthy relationship versus an unhealthy one. Intervene when you see inappropriate words or behavior, because silence can be misunderstood as permission to continue an unacceptable behavior.

  • Talk about what it means to be an ethical person. Teach young people the skills to maintain caring romantic relationships and how to treat each gender with dignity and respect. This also helps strengthen their ability to develop caring, responsible relationships at every stage of their lives and to grow into ethical adults, community members and citizens.

“For adults to hand over responsibility for educating young people about romantic love and sex to popular culture is a dumbfounding abdication of responsibility,” Weissbourd contends.

“Lots of middle and high-schoolers experience trauma at their first and failed attempts at relationships. We need to make sure that kids know that breakups are not the end of the world.

“The huge question for all of us is this: Given the troubling downsides of our neglect of these issues and the large health, educational and ethical benefits of taking them on, how can we not push down this path?”

The results of this study encourage me personally, because this is what we have been promoting for two decades. It’s gratifying to see research repeatedly validate something we have taught teens in the schools and adults in this community for many years: Healthy relationships are key to success, in more ways than one.

Kids and Sports: What Really Matters

You may want to figure out what you want kids to learn from playing the game.

Jim and Susan* were very purposeful in their decision to let their 6-year-old son play baseball. Jonathan seemed to enjoy the game and actually played well enough to make the All-Star team.

“The regular season ended on a Saturday and All-Star practice began on Mother’s Day,” says Jim. “They practiced every day that week with their first game on Friday. Between Friday and Tuesday, the team played nine games. The general atmosphere was ‘win at all costs.’ The coach spent a lot of time yelling at the kids if they missed a play. There was very little positive encouragement when players did something right.”

After witnessing this, Jim and Susan began questioning their decision to let their son play.

“I knew things were not good when we showed up to a game and our son said his stomach hurt,” Jim says. “I figured it was probably nerves. When we got home, Jonathan went outside and played baseball for a couple of hours. That was when we really knew we had a decision to make.”

Ultimately, Jim and Susan made the joint decision to pull their son off the team. When they told him about their decision, he actually seemed relieved.

Forty million kids play youth sports. Yet according to a National Alliance for Youth Sports poll, more than 70 percent of kids who begin a sport before age 8 will not play that sport in middle school.

Michigan State University asked 30,000 kids why they play sports, and they said because it’s fun. And while they value winning, it isn’t why they show up to play.

John O’Sullivan, founder and CEO of the Changing the Game project, says that kids are not becoming better at sports. They are becoming bitter instead. He notes that kids say they quit playing sports because they’re tired of being yelled at and there’s too much emphasis on winning. They’re also afraid to make mistakes. When winning matters to parents or coaches more than anything else, it can totally take the joy out of playing.

“The single most fundamental thing we teach is something I learned from Coach Bruce Brown,” says O’Sullivan. “You can do your part by starting with five simple words: I love watching you play.

Heath Eslinger, University of Tennessee Chattanooga wrestling coach, encourages parents to focus on what is important in the big picture, not just what is important now.

“Improvement in sports happens through repetition,” says Eslinger. “If I play a baseball game, I may never touch a baseball. If that is the case, there is no way I can improve. Repetition comes from play, and that is so much more beneficial.”

Eslinger believes parents need to let their children walk through organic struggles versus placing them in supplemental struggles, which are all extracurricular opportunities. Organic struggle centers around two things: relationships and responsibility. How you treat people and how you take care of responsibilities will always be around.

Many positives and life lessons can come from playing sports. Before you involve yourself too much though, it’s probably a good idea to examine exactly what you want kids to learn from playing the game. Whether you are a coach or a parent, you get to decide what is more important – winning and performance or making better people of character.

*Not their real names.

5 Reasons You Should Celebrate Milestones

Each experience prepares us for the future.

When our daughter graduated from high school a few years ago, I asked a number of people in her life to write her a letter to congratulate her on this accomplishment. I asked them to include words of wisdom as she moved into her next phase of life.

I made a scrapbook with the letters and gave it to her as she headed off to college. In my mind, the purpose of the scrapbook was two-fold. In those moments when she struggled during this next phase, we wanted her to remember what she had already accomplished. We also wanted her to remember she was not walking the road alone; that she has a lot of people in her court who believe in her.

Unquestionably, every day is a gift. However, certain days mark significant moments in our lives. Whether it’s a fifth grade, high school or college graduation, celebrate each milestone. Each of these moments in life marks a time of accomplishment and of moving forward to the next thing.

Author and speaker John Stahl-Wert says it is important to celebrate milestones for five reasons:

  • As humans we are called to grow. “Becoming more” is essential. We suffer when we don’t grow. Every milestone deserves notice. It is an affirmation of an accomplishment.

  • Growth is nourished by encouragement. Celebrate even the small steps because “small is where big comes from.” We guide others toward bigness through encouragement.

  • Acknowledging milestones gives us the opportunity to reflect on where we have been, where we are now and what we can learn from this part of the journey. Our growth and achievement are for the greater purpose of our service to the world. Achievement, in and of itself, doesn’t fulfill, and without reflection, we are trapped by an insatiable avarice to fill a bottomless hole.

  • Nothing locks in learning like a party. It signifies that the accomplishment really matters.

  • Celebrating milestones reminds us to give thanks for everyday moments. When we pause to celebrate something that is noteworthy, the act of slowing down invites us to notice everything else.

It’s been several years since our daughter graduated from high school. Little did we know how impactful that scrapbook would be. It sits on her coffee table and when the going gets tough, it reminds her that people believe in her and that she has what it takes to keep on keeping on.

In a world where it seems like it’s all about the “big wins,” it might be helpful to remember that there is no such thing as a small victory or a wasted loss. Each experience helps prepare us for what lies ahead, so celebrate!

Overcoming the Loss of a Child

The pain will always be there, but there is also hope.

Christi and Matt Broom married in 2005, got pregnant on their honeymoon and welcomed their son Bryan into the world in 2006.

“Bryan was perfect,” says Christi. “I had a great maternity leave over Thanksgiving and Christmas. I planned to return to work in January. It was Sunday morning. I remember waking up at 4 a.m. to feed Bryan and then I went back to sleep until 6 a.m. When I woke up at 6, something was clearly wrong. Bryan looked like he was struggling to breathe, so we called 911. When the ambulance arrived, they checked his vital signs and said everything appeared to be normal. We asked to be taken to the hospital anyway.”

What followed were days of many questions with few answers. Everything the doctors thought it might be, it wasn’t. But one thing was for certain, Bryan was a very sick baby.

“On Monday a CT scan  showed that his brain was swelling which took them in a totally different direction trying to figure out what was wrong with our son,” Christi says. “Although he seemed so sick and fragile, the medical personnel reassured us that babies are resilient. I think everyone thought they would figure this out and we would be taking our baby home soon.”

Another CT scan showed Bryan’s brain continuing to swell, but no one could figure out why.

“They encouraged me to go home and get a good night of rest,” Christi says. “We got home at midnight and at 3 a.m. they called us back to the hospital. When we got there, they told us Bryan’s brain had swollen to the point of death. We both sat in the room totally confused. What had just happened? We honestly believed we would be taking our son home in a matter of days. Nobody had any answers. Everything was a blur.

“Somewhere along the way, we spoke with the organ donation people because every organ in Bryan’s body except his brain was perfect. We decided to donate his organs.”

Christi describes this moment in time as if it were an out-of-body experience. They were just going through the motions. As they walked to their car when leaving the hospital, she realized her husband was carrying a car seat.

“Those next days and weeks were complicated,” Christi remembers. “It was like walking into the unknown and having no idea how you are going to make it through the next minute because life as you knew it has been stolen from you. It was a fearful and confusing time. A handful of people shared that this had happened to them and wanted to offer support. I didn’t even know how to truly appreciate that at the time, but I remember seeing someone I knew who had lost a teenage son years ago. I went up to her, hugged her and said, ‘I remember praying for you, but I had no idea it hurt this bad.’ I felt like I was in a club nobody wants to be in.”

If you are experiencing this pain, Christi hopes what she learned from her journey can help you.

“If you are ever going to get to the other side you have to feel the pain – and that’s the worst part because nobody wants to hurt that bad. The emotional pain is so very real. You want to push it away, but the only way to heal is to allow yourself to feel your way through the pain. It is super scary because you have no idea how long it will take for it to go away. You think you will never be happy again. You can be happy, but you have to be willing to experience the raw emotion versus trying to stuff it and avoid it.

“Sometimes you just have to let yourself cry,” Christi says. “Things would catch me off guard and the tears would flow. I learned that was really okay and part of the healing process.”

Working with a bereavement counselor from Hospice of Chattanooga and someone from the organ donation agency helped the Brooms as well.

Christi also encourages accepting help from others. Let them clean your house, help you pick out what to wear or cook meals for you. Anything you don’t have to make a decision about can make it easier.

Through all of this, Matt and Christi grew closer.

“My husband lost his father at a very early age and his first wife died when their daughter was two,” Christi shares. “Experiencing this helped me understand the pain he had been living with for many years. We leaned on each other a lot. Sometimes we still struggle, but our bond is strong.”

Eleven years later, the Brooms have three beautiful daughters – ages 18, 9 and 5. While the pain never completely goes away, they do experience happiness.

“I remember someone putting a book right in front of my face, so close that I couldn’t see anything else. They said that in the beginning, you only see what is right in front of you. As you slowly move the book further away, you begin to see more. The pain is always there and you see it, but you experience other things too. Our life is rich. We enjoy our children and try to take it all in knowing that every day is a gift.”

Looking for more? Watch this episode of JulieB TV on this topic.

When children first start school, parents usually have a pretty clear understanding of how to help their child have a successful year. But when those kids become teenagers, parents sometimes struggle with their roles.

Parents usually play a much more active role with younger kids in making sure homework is completed, volunteering in the classroom, dealing with friendships, interacting with teachers, and making sure their child gets enough rest. Too often, though, parents believe they can be less involved when a child moves from elementary to middle school.

While parents may want to change how they engage their tween when it comes to school success, research indicates this is not the time for parents to back off. The tween/teen years bring their own unique challenges, and teens aren’t sure how to talk with their parents or any other adult about many of them.

If you want to actively engage your teens and help them have a successful school year, these ideas can help you out.

  • Have a back-to-school discussion about expectations. Ask them what they want to accomplish this year and discuss ways you can help them reach their goals.

  • Establish healthy sleep patterns. When it comes to rest, plenty of research indicates that tweens/teens do not get enough sleep. On average, teens need 9.25 hours of sleep each night to function at their best. For various reasons though, many of them get significantly less than that. You can help with this by teaching them organizational skills. Have them look at their overall schedule of school and extracurricular activities, then develop a plan.

  • If you are still waking your teen for school, purchase an alarm clock – their phone doesn’t count. Make them responsible for getting themselves up in the morning.

  • Set a budget. Instead of constantly forking out money for this and that, allot a certain amount for school supplies, clothing, extracurricular activities, etc., and teach them how to manage this money. If they want to purchase things that aren’t included in the plan, resist the urge to figure it out for them. Instead, guide them in finding ways they can earn the extra cash.

  • Give them added responsibilities such as doing their own laundry, assisting with meal preparation, and packing lunches.

  • Talk with them about the qualities of healthy relationships – friendships, dating relationships, relationships with teachers and school administrators. Discuss how to treat people with respect even if they aren’t respectful in return.

  • Avoid handling their problems for your teen. Talk with them about the issue, then help them problem-solve and determine a course of action. Facing a challenge head-on and making it to the other side is a huge confidence-builder.

  • Be clear about your expectations when it comes to bullying behavior. Research indicates parents are often the last to know when this is going on – whether your teen is the bully or the victim.

  • Talk about addiction. Discuss the opioid crisis and the impact of drugs and alcohol. This conversation makes it more likely for your teen to talk with you when they do encounter challenges.

  • Be very clear about your expectations and consequences for lack of follow-through, and avoid putting anything out there that you will not enforce. A great rule of thumb is this: less is more. Remind them that nothing they can do would make you love them any more or any less. Your teen needs to know you believe in them.

The teen years are incredibly challenging because everything in their world is changing.

Their brain is growing, their body is changing, relationships are different, and they are establishing their independence while still being dependent in many ways. While they may be taller than their parents and seem smarter, especially when it comes to technology, it’s good to remember that 12 is just 12 and 15 is only 15.

Be present. Keep your eyes wide open. Let them make mistakes. Be there – not to lecture them – but to help them figure out what they could do differently in the future. Stay focused on your goal of launching someone who is capable of caring for themselves and being a productive person.

Even though they may begin to push you away, adolescents need their parents. Don’t be lulled into believing they needed you more when they were younger. The truth is, they need you now more than ever as they navigate the potentially-turbulent teen years.