When a parent says, "I don't like my kid," what then?
- on May 16, 2011
“I can’t tell you how many parents who fill out our survey say, ‘I don’t like my kid’,” Jack Edgerton said. Edgerton is executive director of Parent Trust for Washington Children.
Now, that’s a sentence that convinces me that people can be divided into two camps: Those who cannot possibly imagine a parent saying such a thing. And those who are all too familiar with the sentiment -- either feeling it, or having experienced it with their own parents.
It’s akin to “Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars”, but worse: Parents who can’t imagine not liking their kid (except for the moment the 17-year-old wrecks the car) think there’s something seriously wrong with the parents who don’t like their kids.
Parents who don’t like their children are reluctant to say so -- they’re either afraid to admit it, or just put up with it, and live out their lives believing that what was good enough for them is good enough for their own children.
The solution is in understanding the roots and consequences of childhood trauma so that those who have little or no experience in giving or receiving trauma can empathize and help create solutions with those who have.
It’s not unusual for parents who say “I don’t like my kid,” to reveal that they didn’t like spending time with their own parents, says Edgerton. And why? Because their parents didn’t like spending time with them when they were children.
The consequences can be dire and long-lasting: neglect and/or abuse, which often accompanies other family trauma, such as a parent who’s depressed or has other mental illness, a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in prison, or a parent who disappears through divorce, abandonment and/or death. In other words, all the types of trauma that comprise the ACE score. (A high Adverse Childhood Experience score during childhood substantially increases the risk of chronic illness as an adult -- more on that later.)
And now these parents are replaying their past with their own children.
“We need to move them from that to ‘I enjoy being with my child’,” Edgerton says.
One way that Edgerton has seen parents do a complete 180-degree turn is through group discussion. This is a good time to explain what Parent Trust does. It’s been serving families in Washington State since 1978 by "teaching families skills to promote early learning, improve family bonding, develop new family and life management skills for both parents and children, and prevent child abuse and neglect", according to its website. The organization serves about 15,000 people a year, in several programs, including four for parents and caregivers.
“I remember one group that spent six or seven weeks in discussion with a father who was having a hard time going through a bedtime routine with his son. The kid was having tantrums. The group suggested that he create an environment in which the child could calm down. What we saw happening was that the dad was going through the motions, but he didn’t have his heart in it.
“As time went on, the father became more agitated about the kid and the situation. Finally another dad turned to him and said in exasperation: ‘You’re going to lose it with this kid. You’re going to do something you regret. That was my life. And you don’t want to experience my life.’
“The dad yelled back: ‘Nobody ever did this for me. Why should I do this for my kid?’
“There was complete silence in the group. That dad finally said, ‘I get it now’.”
It was an amazing moment, to see the light bulb go off over that father’s head, said Edgerton. That was the moment the dad realized that he was becoming the parent that he didn’t like.
After that, the group worked with the dad on developing positive experiences so his child could bond with his dad in a positive way, not a negative way.
“One of the things that we do is we teach parents how to play with their child,” says Edgerton. “We have to teach them because so many of them never played with their parents. This is a behavior they now have to learn. They become embarrassed, they think their kid’s going to think they’re dumb if they play Barbie with them. But the kid craves that.”
The Parent Trust staff teach the parents who participate in their programs about the ACE Study -- the CDC/Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experience Study. They have them calculate their own scores, and link their childhood trauma with the behavior that’s currently affecting their lives and the lives of their children.
Then they teach them positive or protective behaviors that break the cycle of passing on high ACE scores to their children. Many parents have said that learning about ACE provided great relief because it helps them understand their own behavior, and makes them more determined to raise children with a lower ACE score than their own.
One notable aspect of Parent Trust’s approach is that the staff doesn’t focus on trauma alone anymore. “We talk about ACEs rather than trauma experiences,” says Edgerton. “To our way of thinking, experiences with ACEs are the root of trauma. Let’s cut out the middleman.”
But what's an ACE score and why should anyone care? Well, your ACE score may explain the state of your health, and why you eat, smoke, work, drink, or do drugs too much or engage in risky behavior too often. It may explain why you weight 100 pounds more than is healthy for you, why you’re depressed or angry, and/or why smoking or drinking relieves your stress. The ACE Study (Adverse Childhood Experience) is an ongoing project of the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, in which researchers have followed the health of 17,000 people since the late 1990s. The study found a direct link between child trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease, including lung and heart disease, diabetes and depression.
People with an ACE score of 4 or higher -- measured by the different types of trauma, not incidents of trauma -- have a greater risk of these diseases. Examples: Morbid obesity in women has been linked to emotional abuse in their childhoods. An ACE score of 4 increases the likelihood of lung disease by 390 percent and depression by 490 percent.
You can do a rough calculation of your score by filling out this questionnaire. The startling findings have inspired many organizations, five states, the U.S. military and several countries to do their own ACE surveys.
One of the challenges in health and human services, says Edgerton, is that social service agencies have separated the nine ACEs and have tried to deal with each one individually. For example, separate organizations address alcohol abuse, child abuse, obesity and smoking.
“We rarely look it as a continuum of challenges that families face,” he says. Researchers have found that if there’s one ACE, such as child abuse, there are others, such as alcoholism and/or depression. “There’s cascading effect in parents who are passing on a cascade of ACEs to their children -- alcohol and drugs, incarcerated parents, neglectful behavior. They’re passing all of those ACEs onto their children. And then teaching their children how to replicate ACEs in their children.”
By breaking through the “ACE barrier”, Parent Trust staff helps parents reverse the pattern.
[This is one of a series of posts about how organizations in other communities across the U.S. are incorporating the findings of the ACE Study in social services, schools, juvenile justice, and public health.]