The Lived Experience, Episode 1 – This week: Elizabeth, Part 3

The fine, and sometimes edgy, balance between attachment and authenticity

Last week, we spoke about the impact of shame and disconnection as a hindrance to a sense of true belonging. This week, we will dive deeper into the fine, and sometimes edgy, balance between attachment and authenticity.
We start by asking Elizabeth about the time and process around coming to the conclusion that things were connected, looking back on her childhood years. “I recently did an intake for a psychologist and there, this kind of question came up as well [fortunately!]. What really stands out is a feeling of always walking on eggshells because I never knew what mom was going to blow up over. Despite all the fun stuff at schools and the sports and the lack of financial worries… as soon as I came home, I had to be very cautious because anything could set her off.”

We notice her mom being much more present in her memories than her dad: “Definitely. My mom was the main player. My dad and I never had a bad relationship, even though I was upset that he didn’t defend us, especially if she got really bad, but I never had any animosity against him. It felt like ‘good cop, bad cop’ and my mom was definitely the bad cop.” She laughs, but not happily or wholeheartedly. She pauses and goes on to say: “I have a very distinct memory of when my mom slapped me across the face on an occasion where I was antagonising my little sister. I was very good at that. My mom got angry and slapped me. Something like that didn’t happen very often, though, and when it did, I think I deserved it; I was being a brat. It’s funny, because when I think of the word ‘abuse’, I would never apply it to myself. If someone came to me and told me that she’s living with someone who constantly calls her names and shouts and hits her I would be like ‘Get the hell out of there!’ But although that is basically the relationship I had with my mom, I would never apply the label of being abused to myself, not before and not now. Why not? Well, it carries a lot of weight and so many people are much worse off than me, so I feel I am not entitled to use that label for what happened to me. It would feel like doing others an injustice.” In the silence that follows, we hear the seagulls shouting loudly again. “Yeah”, she resumes, “I’m hoping to talk about this with my psychologist shortly!” With the laugh we all join into, we break the tension that has built up.

This negative self-labelling, the shaming and blaming towards oneself, seeing one’s life story as less worthy or less special is a very common thinking pattern in trauma research. When we come to understand that the ones who are supposed to nurture and protect us, so that we feel happy and alive and safe, end up being the ones who hurt us and make us feel lonely and lacking a sense of belonging, this makes us feel scared, insecure and sad. This can shatter our lifeview to the extent that we tend to find irrational explanations for what happened. As a consequence, we may downplay and downgrade ourselves, and tell ourselves it was not that bad, and that we probably deserved it. So, we built different stories for ourselves, with the same purpose of rescuing ourselves from a sense of deep fear of annihilation and not being worthy of existing at all. This may rescue us for the short term, but the toxic stress builds up and because of the lack of buffering support from a caring, attentive adult our systems get dysregulated for the long term. This need not be the case for everyone all the time, however. Knowing as a parent when and how to be more authoritative (not authoritarian) with a child is a central skill to master when working towards secure attachment. When the attachment is insecure, however, and the authenticity of the child has ‘no place at the table’, it almost never benefits anyone, neither the child nor the parent. This is the story of the struggle between authenticity and attachment that Gabor Maté and Ingeborg Bosch, amongst many others, address in more detail.

We continue wondering: “Isn’t it strange, that as children we are made to feel we deserved an approach like this from our parents?” Elizabeth responds: “My parents called me disrespectful, as I was always talking back to them. The worst, however, was the emotional manipulation, not the physical abuse. It was really emotional. She would just scream, scream, scream at me, call me names, make me feel like I’m a manipulative person. And that is something which I believe still to this day, because she always told me that. It became part of my identity, this feeling of ‘I guess that’s just who I am, a manipulative person’.”
We argue that this can be quite self-destructive. If you hear such qualifications often enough as a child, you will probably start believing in them and maybe even behaving accordingly. She shares some truly saddening memories: “I was around 12 or 13 and many of my friends had anorexia. I myself developed an eating disorder as well and I remember my parents being very unsupportive: ‘This is such bullshit; you are just being a child.’ They brought me to a clinic for therapy and even years after the disorder was solved, whenever I didn’t feel like eating or something, my mom would say: ‘Oh, not this shit again…’ Those moments were some of my lowest points in life, realising that she would not take anything that really bothered me seriously. She didn’t really care or if she did care, it was in a really weird way.”

“Did your sisters have the same issues with your parents?” She’s very determined: “No, it was only me! They dealt with it in very different ways. They were very good at not provoking my mom and not rocking the boat. I was constantly aggravating my parents, talking back and happy to fight. Both of my sisters learned to play the game better, I think, while also watching me as the older sister and realising that they didn’t want to do it like I did.” To the question about what ‘the game’ was, she unflinchingly responds: “Oh, how not to piss mom off, how to keep peace in the household!”. We offer an alternative option: “But what if the game would be ‘how do I stay closest to my authenticity’, you might be the winner, maybe…?” She looks, pauses and then nods: “Yeah, definitely… I was actually shocked to hear from my sisters that they felt exactly the same way as I did emotionally. They just dealt with it differently. I always spoke my mind, and everything would turn into a fight, while they would just be like ‘yes mom’ and go to their room. I guess they watched me and learned the consequences.” We wonder if, looking back, she wished she had dealt with the situation differently and she replies with a resounding ‘No!’ “I am happy that no matter what, I managed to stay true to myself, even if it caused me a lot of pain. I don’t think I could just sit there and take it; that is just not how I am. Whatever personality I developed in those years, it led me to where I am, and to the fantastic life that I’m living now. So, how can I regret it if I love where I stand now?”

We celebrate this conclusion with Elizabeth and wonder if she feels that there are certain aspects of her childhood that are particularly relevant for how she personally developed into her present life. “I think that, to this very day, I have an unquenchable curiosity that comes from all the activities I was able to take part in as a child. It feeds into my love for travelling, my love for nerdy stuff and my wish to get a master’s degree in the field I chose. I really like that about myself. I was able to do a lot, as long as it was not outside of my parents’ realm. For instance, they were very clear about not financing my University if it was not a Christian-based schooling, when I was about 18; “go to a secular school and you’re on your own”, they said.

Then, “My mom used to call me manipulative all the time. In a way, she was right: I can be; I will try to get my own way. I also seem to have inherited my mom’s temper, the hot-headed-ready-to-fight kinda thing. Anger is often my first reaction in case of frustration and this was really something I had to work on when my partner and I were moving in together, finding other ways to channel my anger. The fact that he is such an amazing person and really non-confrontational has been so helpful. I have become much more reflective regarding my own behaviour and I can ask for feedback on how I reacted and make apologies when they are due. Apologising used to make me so uncomfortable; I just didn’t want to admit I was wrong…” She clenches her teeth in thinking about how it felt to her and shakes her head. “Now, I can say ‘look, I’m sorry; can I please make it up to you?’ and that feels really good. It is such a difference…” My mom never apologised to us, never, not to me and my sisters nor to my dad. I never learned how to apologise to others. Only later did I learn that you need to be able to, if you want to fix things with people. She tells us how lately, in COVID time, she connected a bit more with her mom, although any trust that was left was broken. “I don’t want to repeat the experience my mom had with her mom, to go to her deathbed and feel like we never even tried to fix things. She is still not very self-aware, though, and it would be hard for me to talk to her about everything that happened without being accusatory or making her defensive.”

Next week, we will touch on bad habits and addiction, avoiding facing them, and the process of healing helped by unconditional love.

The Lived Experience, Episode 1 – This week: Elizabeth, Part 2

When shame and disconnection hinder true belonging

Last week, we made a start by exploring Elizabeth’s childhood, the things she could remember clearly and the things that seemed to have somehow disappeared.
We continue by diving into her really early years and ask whether there is a certain vibe she can remember from around that time. She sits and thinks… In the background, the sound of seagulls flying over the balcony laces the scene. She then mentions playing violin at the age of 3 or 4, the ebbing and flowing relationship with her sister, and rather detailed memories from Church. “A lot of my really close friends when I was young are from the Church. I have memories of playing outside the Church in this huge cornfield, or going to Jesus camp in the summers, and things like that.”

“Was there something of a real community feeling?”

She agrees: “Yeah, definitely a community feeling. It’s weird, isn’t it? I was super, mega religious until I was about 16. A large part of my youth I was really into the Church, the evangelical branch. I was studying the Bible, doing workshops, and going to camps. There was also an aspect of shaming and control, though. I remember very clearly, I was about 10 – you weren’t allowed to wear shorts above your knee, right, or sleeves above your shoulder, or mobile phones on site. One day, I had shorts that came right above the knee, and the camp director took me aside and gave me a lecture on how that was inappropriate and told me to change clothes. I was so embarrassed… There was definitely an element of shaming and blaming, and very strict rules that we had to adhere to.
Nevertheless, there was also a lot of fun during the camps and with all my friends being in this community, I felt a true sense of belonging. It almost feels like the quintessential part of me growing up was at this camp: the first boy I had a crush on, I got my first period there (a big milestone for me), I got baptised at that camp – just really big life events happened at Jesus camp over the summers. So, I had a big attachment to it; it was such a big part of my life, which is probably why it took me until 16-17 to leave it.”
When asked what happened at that age when she left, she says it was not a defining point, but more of a gradual process with reading and thinking and starting to question the traditional views of her parents and community, for example on homosexuality and religion.

“One of the few memories I have from when I was around 5 – I would take the stereotypical yellow American bus to school every day, right, and I was sitting next to this girl named Zoe, and Zoe told me one day (after she found out that I was as Christian as one can be at that age) that ‘God isn’t real’. And I was like… ‘What do you mean, God isn’t real?’ This was the first time I heard such a thing. So, I went to my mom and asked: ‘Mom, is God real?’ She got so angry: ‘How dare you, asking this question! Of course God is real, you should be ashamed!’ I remember that I was just looking for some comfort, you know, like: ‘Let’s talk about this and discuss, why are you asking this’… that sort of conversation. It wasn’t that at all; my mom showed no curiosity in my questions. Then I thought: ‘Of course she’s right, how could I be asking that…’ But if I still remember that now so vividly, it obviously affected me more than I thought.” She continues: “I was a really smart kid asking all types of questions about the world and seeing different ideologies around me. That got me more and more curious about other things and when I turned 18 I decided to leave home and Church.”

In these previous paragraphs, Elizabeth has mentioned the word ‘shame’ several times. Shame is a very difficult concept to deal with, both for those who experience it and for those who research and try to explain it, because it is a very complicated emotion with many sociocultural aspects. When we are young, we need to feel the love of our closest caregivers to develop a sense of selfworth, to learn that we are worthy of love and belonging. Stressed and struggling parents radiate an energy that is picked up by their children, who, dependent as they are on their parents for survival, try to ease the parental pain and can easily start blaming themselves for it. The self-blame often turns into shame, which can have a pervasively destructive effect on a person’s feeling of worthiness: ‘Do I deserve to be loved? Will these people abandon me because they think badly of me? Should I comply with what is asked of me, so that I am worthy again and fit in?’
Such considerations instill a deep sense of fear and can move people into a constant stress mode in which all kinds of defense mechanisms are activated. As humans, we crave meaningful connection to others, in which we can be ourselves, and if we cannot get that from those in our social environment, we look for other sources of comfort and ways to numb the feeling of loneliness and lack of belonging (which is where addictions and other unhealthy behaviors lurk).
In her book ‘Daring Greatly’, social scientist Brené Brown speaks about how ‘fitting in’ is the exact opposite of ‘belonging’. Aiming to fit in often means that you assess a situation and try to meet the standards of the group; they accept you *despite* your authenticity, as long as you ‘behave’. Belonging means that people accept you *because of* your authenticity; you don’t have to change who you are – you only have to be who you are. Elizabeth gives a couple of examples where fitting in with the standards of others made her feel uncomfortable. It somehow created a disconnection from the self that took her years to identify; she actually says she is still in the middle of reconnecting to her authentic self.

Following up on the talk with her mom about religion, we speak about other situations where she was looking for comfort and about who could provide that for her. “I think my dad and my sister were the ones. My dad… he’s very quiet, very non-confrontational. Then again… I hated him, too, eventually, because he would never stick out for me and my sister; he was always on mom’s side. But, at the same time, he was a very kind and gentle person, so if I would be really upset he would be the one I would go to. Still, this was not in terms of things like ‘I am struggling with my worldview and I need help…’ I would not go with that to my dad either. Yeah, when looking back I feel that there really was this gap of having someone older to go to for advice, or comfort. That part of the parental experience was missing for me; there was no one to always know that I could count on, no constant…” We wonder if it was a lack of a continuous attachment figure and she says: “Yeah, exactly. You switch teachers every year, you move away; there are people you couldn’t really talk to because they were friends of my mom from Church, and so on. Even now, I feel the same. Especially since I’m going through other life milestones like getting my first job now, I would like to be able to talk to my mom about these huge steps and tell her how I feel, but that’s not really there.”
This feeling of lacking trusted figures can thus continue into adulthood; the experience becomes a continuity throughout life. For Elizabeth, this loneliness made childhood difficult and keeps making adulthood complex.

The question comes up whether that lack of connection only has to do with the religious aspects. Elizabeth says her mother became a Christian after her parents started dating at university. Her father grew up with the Church, but her mom only joined later and was then very committed. “I think my mom was looking for meaning in her own life, because she had a terrible, terrible relationship with her parents. When I was four years old, something happened during a visit to my grandparents. My mom walked out and we never went to them again. I was 12 when grandma died, but we did not go to her funeral. It wasn’t even discussed; I had no emotional attachment to her and didn’t miss her when she died. Around that time, when I was already in Europe, I found out that my mom wrote a blog and in it, she pictures her last visit to my grandma, her mom, after not having seen her for years. Apparently, a conversation took place in which my grandma told my mom: ‘I’m so disappointed in you, you’re such a failure in life’, and then she died… I was really shocked, reading that.” We touch on how, regardless of whether these were the actual words, the fact is that this is how it landed with her mother: “So… fully true or not.. that’s how it made her feel, right? This is what she internalised. I completely understand that my issues with my mom growing up fully stem from the issues she had with her mom. We never really talked about it, however, and I would have no clue how I could possibly bring it up, knowing how sensitive it is for her. Sometimes I feel I’m exaggerating the whole thing, but I have started realising that the way it affects me now, shows how relevant this was and how valid my repulsion.”

In these sad lines, we hear Elizabeth elaborate on what are the intergenerational effects of trauma. Her mom has clearly suffered from a very difficult relationship with her own mother, and in hindsight, Elizabeth can see how this impacted the way her mom raised her and her sisters. Seeing a link between your own childhood and that of your parents is already an important discovery to make, one that can serve as a step towards a better understanding of where relational and other issues could originate.

The question of how to address this is very important. In all situations where trauma is present and where shame and blame often play an important role, it can be helpful to find out about the undercurrents, the topics that are not discussed, but are nevertheless present and negatively influence the relationships within a family, a community, a whole culture, even. These undercurrents can sometimes be made visible by a non-invasive approach in which the central question is ‘What happened to you? What is your story?’ If we can provide an environment with holding space, in which we listen wholeheartedly and without judgment and if we can practice what is called ‘compassionate inquiry’, people can maybe find the courage to tell their story, to look at their own life history with new and more compassionate eyes. This can have a very healing effect on everyone involved.

Next week, we will take an even closer look at the family atmosphere in Elizabeth’s home.

The Lived Experience, Episode 1 – This week: Elizabeth, Part 1

This week, we start with a series on the lived experience of ACEs. We share with you a number of blogs based on an interview with Elizabeth (pseudonym). In the conversation we had with her, she was beautifully brave and open and we are honoured being allowed to share with our audience the insights she gained over the years and spoke about to us. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead!

When the memory of childhood seems to be lost

A lot of rain was expected for today, but by the time we leave the railway station on our bikes, it is dry. We cross town with a phone at hand so the GPS can lead us to her place. Elizabeth had shared that she was very happy with how things had been changing in her life over the last year. She enthusiastically spoke about the new, nicer and much more affordable apartment she and her partner had found, how she finally had a residency permit to stay and work in the Netherlands for the next five years, and how she landed a job at a charity foundation in a very international team. “Everything I was so stressed and bitter about has been resolved and I feel overwhelming joy!”, she had said. Nevertheless, she was still very aware of what had been so difficult for her before. Now that she finally had more mental space, she had decided she wanted to see a psychologist and deal with the issues from her early years, to plough through ‘all the shit that came up’, as she called it: “I will now finally make it a priority to heal from the past!” About a year before, we had been discussing John Bowlby’s work and after borrowing two titles from someone, she decided to buy them for herself, as she wanted to dive into it more deeply. Our invitation to interview her seemed to fit well with that goal and we do not exclude the possibility for the meeting to become intense.

We ring the bell and through the intercom system she says she is coming down. As she opens the door, all three of us break out in a big smile. How nice to meet again, after such a long time! We exchange greetings and she leads the way up. One flight, a second one, a steep climb along white painted walls and a white, nicely carved wooden flight of stairs. At the top, she unlocks the door to yet a third flight and then we are in their cosy apartment, where daylight floods in from both sides. The place has a comfortable couch in one corner, facing a large TV-screen, a round table with four chairs in the other, plants in several places, a study corner on the opposite end of the room, the kitchen in between, pans and utensils on a long sink with its wall along the stairs where we have come up, little magnet boxes with spices on the fridge, different tea flavours on the side of it, a bedroom with a multicoloured, flowery duvet cover, and an oil burner with a lit candle in the bathroom. Clearly, they have made a home for themselves and it is good to see her bright and shining with a new haircut.

She makes us tea and coffee and after catching up on what we have been up to, we start the interview, explaining to her that we do have some questions prepared, but jokingly add that the interview will be more ‘semi’ than ‘structured’. We all laugh at the familiarity of the terminology. We say that she can take the questions wherever she wants. She can go as deep or stay as shallow as she feels okay with. She nods and seems eager to start. Straight from the first question, about what she can remember from her early childhood and what period seems particularly relevant, Elizabeth touches on aspects of childhood trauma that are very characteristic. She ponders and replies: “After your invitation to be interviewed, I realised that I really do not remember pretty much anything from it. I really don’t remember.” She confirms our remark that this, in and of itself, is interesting: “Yeah, and it’s funny because my sister for example has this razor-sharp memory of things where she’d be like ‘do you remember when we did this and this…?’, and I’m like ‘nope…’ It made me feel a bit weird, a bit uncomfortable, especially because a lot of people you talk to have these memories and experiences from when they were very little, and for me it’s almost like it’s not even there, like it’s erased… It’s uncomfortable, but it’s not like it’s disturbing me. It’s kind of ‘it is what it is’.”

Even though the lack of memories may not feel too disturbing for Elizabeth, her experience is worth taking a closer look at. Science tells us that when we feel unsafe and our stress levels rise, we enter one of several possible survival modes: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (the tendency to please or placate our ‘adversary’). Our hormonal state becomes such that we are fully alert and ready to escape the danger that we feel threatens us. This brings us into a ‘safe mode’, where our evolutionarily older primal brain (mainly responsible for the more basic functions) takes over, and our evolutionarily newer neocortex brain (mainly responsible for the more complex and analytic functions) is no longer in the driver’s seat. The fact that in stressed situations we are focussed on survival and finding security again, causes our brain to stop processing memories equally well as when we are in a non-stressed safe state, in which we can dedicate attention to and integrate our surroundings. If this state continues for weeks, months or years, entering the realm of (chronic) ‘toxic stress’, the short-term memory loss can indeed become a generalized state of prolonged ‘amnesia’. Naturally, we can never know for sure if this was the case for Elizabeth, but this is a common scenario that does not seem to be too far-fetched given her story.

There is enough that Elizabeth does know and remember though. She is the oldest of three and her family moved to a different area before her first birthday. Less than a year later, she moved again and then grew up in a suburb of a big city, a place where by and large families were all white, all pretty well off, all having 2-3 kids, and all enjoying a garden with a fence and a lawn. “A place like that is so grossly stereotypical”, she says, as she shakes her head and rolls her eyes; “it was very homogenous and Christian, I had no black friends and I really felt like growing up in a bubble.” When asked about when she realised that she was living in this bubble, she says that she recognised it once she was a teenager: “As a kid, I didn’t know anything of course. Part of the reason why I moved continents when I was 18 was that I knew ‘there is more out there’. There just had to be more than what I was used to. I was curious what the actual world looked like, and not only this tiny corner, where most of my friends had wealthy parents (mine included), big houses, vacations abroad, you name it. The schools there are publicly funded from the surrounding property tax, which means that if you have a wealthy neighbourhood, your school is going to be well funded, as ours was; we had courses on becoming a pilot or a glider with trips out to the airfield and all that stuff; it was insane!”

This is also interesting and worthy of some further discussion. Part of what the original ACEs-study by Anda and Felitti from 1998 showed, was that ACEs are not just common among economically deprived, disadvantaged or minority communities. They also show up in well-educated settings, in groups of people that are well-off financially and enjoy a high socioeconomic status, but are emotionally or interpersonally deprived or lack a sense of belonging. It can leave us devastated, this feeling of not being part of a loving tribe, of a group of people who ‘get us’, who hear and see and love us, not despite our idiosyncrasies, but rather because of our authenticity. Humans are wired for connection and if it’s not there, we have a hard time thriving. Most of us, however, consider the setting we grow up in to be ‘normal’, because it is all that we have and all that we know.

It can be almost impossible to find out that what you as a child experience, is not normal, not fair, not healthy. You live with what you are used to and what you are ‘fed’ with from an early age. This can be a very sad situation, because these early experiences will, to quite an extent, shape your views and convictions. You may start to think that this is what life looks like; you may grow to believe that not having people to turn to when you feel trapped in loneliness, misery or danger, is just the way the world works. The shame that comes with this sense of always being ‘not enough’, this feeling of unworthiness, can make you hide away, back off, tune out, instead of connecting with responsive others. Only when your world becomes bigger and you get acquainted with different family and community cultures, different ways of how people treat one another, different styles of communication, may you learn to look at life from a different perspective. Sometimes this happens at a fairly young age, sometimes it only happens much later, which means you may also need a much longer time to heal.

Next time, we will learn more about how Elizabeth experienced the world she grew up in.

Positive Childhood Experiences: Building resilience and mitigating toxic stress through safety and connection

Last time, we mentioned Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) in our blog post about trauma-informed education.
This week we will explore what PCEs are, and how reducing exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) while promoting PCEs awareness can help in shaping resilient, connected and secure children. This foundation prepares children for a healthy and fulfilling adulthood. If ACEs can have such a long-lasting impact on a person’s health and wellbeing, surely PCEs might help mitigate some of the effects of ACEs. At the core of all this is in fact the salutogenic approach we discussed previously: the paradigm that says that what deserves a much more prominent place in public health is not the question of how to prevent illness and disease, but the question of how to maintain and achieve health and wellbeing. Where a pathogenic approach is largely reactive and retrospective, based on anxiety and avoiding risk, salutogenesis is basically a proactive, prospective approach, based on confidence and seeking wellbeing.

In order to clarify PCEs, let us first look at what a good, happy childhood looks like.

What is a happy childhood?

Asking this question might feel strange. However, by making an effort to delineate what a good childhood looks like, it becomes easier to get a good understanding of which experiences make for happy early life years.
There is quite a lot of agreement on the idea that what children need most for a good and happy childhood is a variety of responsive, caring, connected relationships with the adults in the child’s family and community. These nurturing relationships form the secure base a child needs in order to happily and confidently explore their environment. With a secure base in place, going out and about, whether as a baby, a toddler or a teenager, is not scary, but an adventure, a journey that will teach you new stuff while knowing that you can always return to that safe nest that is home. Secure and stable relationships help shape infants into resilient children who then become resilient adults.

What are Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs)?

In order to evaluate the effect Positive Childhood Experiences have in mitigating the effects of ACEs and in building resilience, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University defined the following PCEs and conducted a large-scale research in an adult population at Wisconsin. Seven PCEs were researched. The first three focus on the child’s family environment, and the rest focus on the child’s friends and community. The PCEs are the following:

  1. Feeling able to talk to your family about your feelings
    Sharing feelings and emotions give you a sense of belonging and feeling understood. It is also an important way to coregulate and bring down stress levels, which, in turn, helps to prevent them from becoming toxic. It also is a great opportunity for the parents and caregivers to help children build emotional intelligence by coaching them through their feelings.
  2. Feeling that your family stood by you during difficult times
    The adult’s presence can have a buffering effect when the child is going through difficult times or experiencing stress that could become toxic without that buffering. Their presence, their soothing words, and their holding space can help children feel supported and comforted. It drives home the all-important message that they are not alone, that they are respected in their uniqueness and their emotions.
  3. Feeling safe and protected by an adult at your home
    Feeling safe and protected is a basic human need; in fact, if you do not feel safe, other functions in your body might stop working properly until you have found safety again. There are many ways in which an adult can make a child feel safe and protected, like taking care of them physically by responding to their needs, or talking them through overwhelming experiences and helping them coregulate after a stressful experience.
  4. Having at least 2 adults, that are not your parents, taking genuine interest in you
    Supportive adults with whom a child can form healthy attachments and whom they can turn to, besides their parents, are very important for children. These adults are even more important if the child’s parents have difficulty providing the aforementioned safety and support. They can be extended family members, neighbours, teachers, coaches, counsellors – it can be the most unexpected person, as long as they have a role in the child’s life that allows for moments of connection and experiencing a safe haven in the midst of chaos and overwhelm.
  5. Feeling supported by friends
    Knowing that you have friends to turn to, people who listen to you, who have your back and who will stand tall for you, who laugh and cry with you and understand what you need, are a wealth of support. Again, it is the nurturing, strong and healthy relationships that will help you through the storms by means of the coregulation they have to offer.
  6. Enjoying participating in community traditions
    Traditions help us feel part of a whole. They can help connect extended families, bring people together, and have them participate in traditions. They can help you find a sense of connectedness and purpose. There are lots of examples of communities, for example a neighbourhood, a school, a town or a district, a support group for people with the lived experience of a certain difficulty or disability, a group that is formed to raise awareness about a certain issue, a group around a hobby, and more.
  7. Feeling a sense of belonging in high school (not including those who did not attend school or were homeschooled)
    Feeling a sense of belonging in school can help you build more resilience against adversity. Children who engage with others and in activities in school have higher rates of resilience and lower rates of chronic disease in childhood. Addressing childhood trauma in school settings  deserves to be high on the agenda of national and local policies in order to mitigate the effects of toxic stress and ACEs.

Specific positive experiences such as having the family’s support, family closeness, and responsiveness to health needs, reduce the negative outcomes of ACEs.

The Interactions between PCEs and ACEs

Some studies have researched the interactions between PCEs and ACEs in order to see what are the associations between these two. Surely enough, specific positive experiences such as having the family’s support, family closeness and responsiveness to health needs, reduced the negative outcomes of ACEs, such as unwanted pregnancy and mental health problems in adulthood.
Despite these findings, there are very few studies that have evaluated PCEs and ACEs simultaneously. What we do know is that the more PCEs someone experiences in childhood, the more likely they are to seek emotional and social support as adults, and the better mental health outcomes they probably have.


As you may already have guessed by now, promoting PCEs is something that every community ought to be doing, in order to help prevent ACEs in the first place and help mitigate the effects of ACEs once they have already settled in. If ACEs and toxic stress in childhood can have such a tremendous impact on health and wellbeing even decades later, it doesn’t come as a surprise that PCEs can have a preventive and protective effect. That means that for every community and society, it is worthwhile on so many levels to invest in PCEs. Proactively looking for positive involvement: what a beautiful way to inspire and be inspired!

What are the positive childhood experiences (PCES)? Infographic