API Live Podcast Interview: Christina Bethell, PhD, of Johns Hopkins – Positive Childhood Experiences

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API Live Episode: AP Month 2020 Parenting for PEACE: Positive Childhood Experiences

Guest: Christina Bethell, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University, Program Host: Patricia Mackie, Special AP Month Episode Host: Artemisia Yuen, Welcome by Samantha Gray, API Executive Director

Portrait photo of Christina D. Bethell, PhD

Christina Bethell, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University on Positive Childhood Experiences sits down via Zoom with API’s Art Yuen.

API brings you a new interview with this leading researcher and advocate on positive childhood experiences (PCEs).

API Live Podcast Episode with Christina Bethell and Art Yuen


Restoring relatedness should be taken as seriously [in public health] as curing cancer.

Christina Bethell

Have you been feeling stressed lately?

You don’t have to be a parent to watch, soak-up, and share this mega-dose of care, straight news about stress, and simple healing tools from Christina Bethell.

Christina puts relationships at the center of her Captain Marvel-sized work in public health.

She’s working to shift big health systems and services to focus on relationships as the most fundamental element of health, especially for children.

In this episode of API Live, Christina gives a birds-eye view of that work, then quickly shifts to share immediately useful examples of the way systems might work so that everyone can access healing “through any door.” She shares new ideas about stress, healing and gives us several simple tools and supports we all have available and can begin using now. These tools aren’t merely for coping, but they help us grow, even in the face of stress.

In a year that feels like a big loss, especially for health, everyone deserves to hear how we can access our very own health super-powers – for us, our children, and our world. May your 2021 be filled with healing and health.

API Live Podcast Episode with Christina Bethell and Art Yuen



Join API in this episode to hear from Christina about:
  • How cultivating positives may not cancel out stress, but does allow us to heal and evolve
  • Recommendations for individual, family, and work resilience plans
  • Acknowledgement of how parents are often called to provide nurturing warmth when we least feel able
  • Tips for engaging in art, movement, music, play, and time in – because we all need a “sense of mattering”

API Live Podcast Episode with Christina Bethell and Art Yuen


references & selected publications from christina bethell

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Learning More about ACEs and Fostering Positive Childhood Experiences with Becky Haas: Part 3 of 3

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Continued from part 2 of 3

Becky Haas Interview with API for AP Month 2020:

Parenting with PEACE, Part 3 of 3

You’re a parent and this is a community of parents that we’re talking to, and people who serve parents. We’re providing individual help as well as getting communities together, working in coalitions, working in small groups. Mostly, it’s individual parents, day to day, navigating life with their children. What would you want them to know about ACEs? What kinds of messages are you sharing with parents? 

That’s a fabulous question. I’m the mother of two sons who are married and grown now. When I was preparing to have our first child, I remember thinking to myself, I have a wonderful mother. I feel I had a good childhood and all, but I remember thinking as I carried that child, of all the things I’ve ever done in life, any jobs or volunteerism, it came with training. Being a mother did not come with any training. I felt it was the most important thing I was entering into in life. I applaud the work of the Attachment Parenting International community in the fact that you all are having conversations around things that many more families need to understand. What we see now with ACEs is how the fulcrum is slanted in a negative way because that attachment was not there.

In 2010, the Tennessee census revealed…that 11% of Tennessee grandparents had custody of children 18 years and younger.

The other thing that we’re seeing is that there can be a hybrid attachment, that it can be community members or foster parents, but that attachment has to happen for a child to grow up. I didn’t know about attachment until my boys were grown and married, but I have two grandchildren that are four and two. I’ll tell you, I never read a book to them without thinking about ‘serve and return.’ If they fall down, I am there lickety-split, which I would have been anyway. But now I know that the way they’re learning self-regulation it starts first with external regulation. Then they’re going to learn co-regulation then it’s going to be self-regulation. Now, with my two-year-old grandson, it’s all that. “Nammy” is what they call me. The four-year-old, if she’s watching a movie with me, she knows where the comforters are. She’ll say, “Nammy, I’m cold.” I’ll say, “Well, go get a blanket,” and she’ll go get it. And then there’ll be a time where she won’t even ask, she’ll just run, go get the blanket. I didn’t know what all that was until I learned about ACEs.

That’s so encouraging for parents, and grandparents too. Even though you didn’t know about it before, you take the information you get along the way and you start to apply it. 

I didn’t realize how much grandparent care and custodial care there was until I worked at ETSU in car seat safety. In 2010, the Tennessee census revealed (a new number on the census I understand) that 11% of Tennessee grandparents had custody of children 18 years and younger. We’ve been super slow on getting support for the grandparents now that they are raising grandchildren, or those aunts or uncles. It also impacts the community because of instead of retiring, now you’re starting over raising grandchildren because their mom and their dad are in the drug culture.

A child needs in their life two or three adults; they need more than just the parent.

There is no guidebook, as you mentioned, but with the Principles API has, we talk about preparing for pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting – growing in your knowledge.  We share with parents about feeding our children with love and respect, about healthy eating. We help parents understand about responding with sensitivity, which is the hallmark of attachment, as well as providing consistent and loving care. We discuss how it’s important to practice serve and return, and not to have ever-changing childcare figures because that primary early secure attachment is so critical. We guide parents about sleep because sleep can be challenging for parents and for children, especially with separations. We address positive discipline: what’s really effective, including learning to parent with creativity, patience, responsiveness, and curiosity.

We help parents foster good relationships and not chip away at that attachment relationship as children grow because you’re teaching them to problem solve, not using a heavy hand to ‘handle’ them. Then we talk about balance and the family, parenting together and in community, as well as self care. All of this to foster positive childhood experiences, which is not just referring to a good day out at the park or going to Dollywood, although those are nice. It’s really more about creating stability, predictability, connections, support, play, memories, and traditions that are vital to strong, secure, and stable environment for a child to grow and optimally develop.

When I get a chance to talk to parents, some of my work in training school districts, I’ve had a parent night and I’ll have maybe 30 minutes. Always, my go-to is protective factors, that parents understand that a child needs to have a healthy relationship with a teacher or an uncle or a coach. A child needs in their life two or three adults; they need more than just the parent. I know our boys were growing up, my husband and I, we could see that they were headed in a wrong direction and they might not take it from us. But if the coach in the weight room said something to one of my seniors… I did a training in a school district and the coach came up to me and he said, ‘I’m going to be as humble as I can about this, but maybe I’m partially responsible for one of your children never trying drugs, because I told him to meet me in the weight room.’ I remember when that happened. So parents need to understand that children need to have these protective factors. To me, that’s the top part of the funnel, being involved in Girl Scouts or whatever, where you have these other adult caring voices, nurturing voices, that are able to help in that child’s life.

It’s a very micro kind of level of change, but sometimes when you’re parenting young kids, that’s as much as you can do. It’s individual, it takes time, and it’s deep work. We are each other’s and our children’s protective factors.

Sometimes our protective factors change. If a child was to lose a parent to divorce, or heaven forbid to death, navigating things ahead will be difficult. I never had any grandparents around with me, because my family is from Miami, and we just were not involved with our grandparents. So I taught a senior Sunday school class at my church for 15 years. I adopted about 50 grandparents that were in this group. The one man that I mentioned that was orphaned as a young child – on the worst single day of my life, I could not get to his house fast enough to see him and his wife. I honestly didn’t know how my life would go on the next day, but I knew if I could get there, they would help me make sense of it. And they did. So, I’m a champion for protective factors.

That’s what our support groups are about. The people with whom I’ve spent time in support groups have taken my kids for the weekend because I had a work commitment, and I felt full confidence that I didn’t have to worry. They have also been an influence, saying here’s an opportunity your children might be interested in because they know and love my children. At API, we talk a lot about building your support network because those people in your support system become those caring adults in your children’s life too, along with the ballet teacher and the theater director in my kids’ lives. 

And then you’re someone else’s protective factor too. I do try to bring that out. When you think about who could you call on in the middle of the night who’s that close and how are you giving back? Would anyone name you in their protective factors?

…in a world where kindness seems a lost art and where there’s violence, I hope maybe some of this conversation will shift people and just say we will not enter into hatred. We will hold to our ground to be someone who is going to spread kindness.

Absolutely. I love that. For a lot of our leaders that’s why they come to API. They see themselves in this serving, giving role and want to help. It’s a very micro kind of level of change, but sometimes when you’re parenting young kids, that’s as much as you can do. It’s individual, it takes time, and it’s deep work. We are each other’s and our children’s protective factors.

My boys would bring kids over and we would be sitting downstairs playing a Donkey Kong or just engaged in something. Next time they’re over and they’re going to stay for supper. One of them began to tell me how long it’d been since he’d had a family meal because this family was broken by alcoholism. By building these little conversations over a video game where nobody’s got their guard up, then you have that trust.

Recently on social media, a young man who was in college with one of our sons had some challenges and the family from another state reached out and I got involved. This young man was just married over the weekend and I sent a lot of messages of cheers on social media. I haven’t seen him in 10 years but at that time there was a need. Those people don’t just walk right out of my heart. I guess I feel in a world where kindness seems a lost art and where there’s violence, I hope maybe some of this conversation will shift people and just say we will not enter into hatred. We will hold to our ground to be someone who is going to spread kindness.

When I was doing the whole police journey, my husband said to me, one day you should write a book – because he’s lived with me 36 years now. So I did write a book, Your City’s Waiting On You. It’s really a little bit of a Bible study, but chapter seven is all about ACEs. It’s about treating your city with kindness, but there’s chapters in the back, all about nonprofits and foster care and schools. I saw that evolve, not in a religious way, you know, but Jesus said in the kingdom is a servant. If you just get involved and serve, you’re going to build relationships. In another scripture it says I came to seek and to save the lost. I think a lot of times in church, we totally focus on the saving, but what about the seeking part, who’s going out? A cosmetologist, after reading the book, she got it for her mom and they decided to launch a ministry called Bridges to Beauty. They’re going downtown where women are, and they’re doing their cosmetology services for free…

Stories of kindness in practice. Of course. Thank you, Becky, for choosing to do something once you knew.

Parts 1, 2, and 3

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Learning More about ACEs and Fostering Positive Childhood Experiences with Becky Haas: Part 2 of 3

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Continued from part 1 of 3

Becky Haas Interview with API for AP Month 2020:

Parenting with PEACE, Part 2 of 3

In our work, Becky, we have parenting leaders and educators in local communities. We’re also training, and we’re helping them deal with preconceived ideas about parenting, preparing them to facilitate group meetings – to love, accept, welcome, and help caregivers with their parenting. We support those whose stress is affecting their coping and creativity as parents. We wrap this in the API Principles that are very foundational and grounded in research. We’re doing a lot of your infusing the community with empathy, understanding, and warm handholding.

As ACEs awareness is integral to understanding resilience, what childhood environments are more likely to predispose people to grow up without developing a high level of resilience?

The Milken Institute of The George Washington University School of Public Health’s Dr. Wendy Ellis and some of her team developed a graphic called the Pair of ACEs. With that graphic, they show that poor soil creates poor fruit on the tree. The soil illustrates the challenges like lack of affordable housing, food scarcity, and lack of employment. A tree growing in this soil is then likely to grow the fruit of domestic violence, drug addictions, or an incarcerated parent.

Graphic of tree titled The Pair of ACEs demonstrating adverse community environments at the roots and adverse childhood experiences in the branches
The Pair of ACEs. Source: George Washington University

Referring again to the funnel of hope, some schools locally, for instance, have hired a social worker through a nonprofit called Community in Schools. That social worker gets referrals from the teachers or the principal for families that might be struggling with housing or medical needs. I was surprised to learn when I worked at the police department, our city schools reported every year they had 300 to 400 kids classified as homeless. That didn’t mean many of them lived under a bridge or slept in a car, but it meant when they left the classroom every day, the teachers did not know where they could be found. They had no permanent address. But as we understand trauma-informed care, providing a social worker in the school can help address needs that students and their families are facing outside of school.

Statistically, it takes seven acts of violence before someone will reach out to an advocate. That means there is a lot of unreported violence children are witnessing in their homes.

We can see that ACEs occur from the wealthiest parts of town to the most difficult parts. Domestic violence is not socioeconomic; there is no barrier there. In 2015, in my zip code, we averaged nine calls a day that were coded domestic violence. Statistically, it takes seven acts of violence before someone will reach out to an advocate. That means there is a lot of unreported violence children are witnessing in their homes. This is what gave me the idea to train police. Police are likely called to the home and they can provide a small intervention to children who are present to help reduce the trauma.  When police are trained in trauma-informed policing, they step in and they say to the child, “You did the right thing. If you feel unsafe, you call us.” Training also directs the role of police in communities as a guardian instead of a force.

ACEs inventories identify people at high risk, but you also talk about “universal precautions,” keeping a trauma-informed lens based in the 70% statistic of those around us.

Since 2014, as an ACEs educator, I have always presented the national statistics on violence. There are 65% of women in substance abuse treatment who report histories of trauma, 75% of men treated for drugs have a history of trauma, 92% of homeless women have histories of trauma. In 2013, the American Journal of Public Health said homeless individuals have the highest ACEs scores of any population. When I give an ACEs education presentation, we talk about the ACEs test itself, but I’ve never even recommended a group to screen for ACEs. Not that I would be opposed to it, but I feel that if you screen, then you just need to make sure you have services to connect someone once you see what the score reveals. I strongly recommend the universal precautions method because those numbers I’ve cited pretty much tell us that of all the staff we hire, as well as all the consumers we serve, for instance, almost 70% are trauma survivors in some form or fashion.

What if 70% of the people you serve are trauma survivors – then how welcoming are you?

Some have had much more trauma and no healthy support, even among our staff. I do a training where professionals that were in my training, email me, or send me a chat in the chat box of their own story of some abuse and neglect that they’ve overcome. So, I did some work. Back two summers ago, I spoke at the Senator Tommy Burke’s Victims Academy, which is a statewide victim advocate academy that’s held every summer. They asked me to speak about why we need to have trauma informed multidisciplinary teams as best practice. The reasoning that I gave was if you knew that 70% of your services were going to go to people who were hearing impaired, how would you prepare? You would have videos with closed captioning. You would have people who knew sign language. What if 70% of those you serve, were going to face mobility challenges? Federal guidelines say we need to have handicap ramps and handicap accessibility and restrooms. What if 70% of the people you serve are trauma survivors – then how welcoming are you?  How can we ensure our services are not re-traumatizing consumers? That, to me, is when you accept a universal precautions approach.

There are several trauma-informed descriptors – aware, sensitive, responsive. Can you talk about what those are at the individual and societal levels? 

Often, I’m asked to conduct training on the Missouri Model. In the national work I do it’s pretty much recognized as a best practice. It has a paradigm that starts with trauma-aware, then it goes to trauma-sensitive and trauma-responsive, then to trauma-informed. Sitting through a two- or three-hour training does not make someone trauma-informed. This is a journey. If you compare this to tobacco use, we have seen it go over several decades from a popular fad in culture to now being banned from most public properties. How to transform the culture of an organization is addressed by the Missouri Model; in a three-hour workshop, I can help leadership create an action plan for how to change the culture of an organization to become trauma-informed.

I feel like this field found you, shifting culture toward empathy and understanding that is deep and sustainable; you have a gift for helping people understand trauma and how to be sensitive. Like many, I felt very inspired after I was trained by you. When you train, you tell a lot of stories and your approach with these stories is very engaging. You collect stories. Can you share why and how your service and story collecting started?

My parents—I’m one of five children—they were very community based. They would have the college kids who sold the encyclopedias in summertime start living in our house and having dinner. As a matter of fact, one year they told us that their supervisor said, “Don’t go down to that neighborhood, because you’ll want to quit. This little family is going to take you in.” I’ve spent nights in a chicken coop with Vista workers up in Princeville, Tennessee. That’s my childhood. That’s how I grew up. I think some of that made this resonate with me, and I’m always very fascinated by people’s stories.

When I heard about ACEs, it was the first time I felt I could help people with faith, encouragement, prayer, and compassion.

Collecting stories goes back to my days in ministry. I’ve often pondered how did I get picked to do this? Certainly, faith is integral in my life. When I worked in ministry, I would be sitting up in ICU holding the hand of a 70-year-old gentleman whose wife had congestive heart failure and they’ve called the family. The family lives around the world, and I’m sitting there with them that night, while he’s hearing these conversations with medical people about the hours that his wife has left to live. I see those tears falling down his cheeks, and it’s a sacred place to be there with someone.

I’ve wondered, do I like have this sign over my head – if you’re in the worst day of your life, call Becky. I’ve never forgotten a story of human suffering and human resilience. Before I knew about ACEs, it stuck to me like lint on a pair of black slacks. I felt people were such heroes. One of my dearest friends, who’s in his nineties now, when he was a little boy his father went to the doctor and never came home. His father died of tuberculosis. His mother went away sick, and he was so worried as a little boy; lo and behold, she also died of tuberculosis. He told me that he and his two sisters went to live with an aunt and an uncle. Every Sunday after church they’d get dressed up for church. They would sit in the parlor, and they noticed an unusual number of people would come by. One day it dawned on him that the aunt and uncle were trying them out to see if someone might adopt them. I’m hearing all these stories, and I don’t always know what to do with them. When I heard about ACEs, it was the first time I felt I could help people with faith, encouragement, prayer, and compassion.

With ACEs, how could we protect a child?

ACEs gave me a meaningful way, on a big scale, to raise awareness to the courage of people around us. How the smallest of kindnesses brought some comfort: sitting in intensive care or going to visit someone whose young person is suddenly in jail. ACEs has given me a way to really raise awareness of how much kindness means to people when they’re in suffering. I don’t know if I found ACEs, or ACEs found me.

We know that higher ACEs scores are associated with so many things, alcoholism, depression, health issues, employee absenteeism, job performance, and more. It’s significant on the individual level, of course, but what do you see that it does to a community? 

I didn’t realize until working for police the trickledown effect of the drug epidemic. Now that we know about ACEs, it’s almost like which came first, the chicken or the egg. The drugs are not ACEs, and trauma is not an excuse for drugs and crime – but now it offers us an explanation. We know that when bad things happen to people, they have to cope. You and I have found healthy coping mechanisms where some people turn to risky behaviors at an early age: tobacco, underage drinking, drug use, cutting, and eating disorders. I saw the impact that addiction had on the community. When I was overseeing the prison program what we were doing about this was being replicating across the state.

Instead of kicking them out, we hold them more tightly, you know, and what was that going to look like over time.

As we learned about it, a restaurant owner would call me and say I appreciate the work you’re doing. I have a child that’s been in and out of rehab. The next time you all have a gathering, I want to cater that event and do it for free. I was amazed at how many people were touched in the community. Then I saw the numbers. I sat in city commission meetings, hearing local government leaders in a local county. The sheriff told me that in 2010, it cost about $650,000 to run the jail for a year. And then in 2018 or 2019, it jumped to $2.9 million! I saw government leaders talking about how to fund our hospitals, how to dedicate more floors to deal with the volume of babies being born addicted.

That was another reason I championed this message, because it provided this upstream approach, instead of trying to deal with everything through more jails. In 2014, a study done by the Pew Charitable Trust compared Tennessee to New Jersey. Tennessee is the fifth highest state for using incarceration to monitor drug crimes, while New Jersey is 45th. Yet our drug rates and drug crimes continue to grow at the same rate. The summary of that report was incarceration is not reducing drug crimes. I didn’t know anything about this. I sat in city commission meetings and heard mayors talk about this. I heard police chiefs talk about it, how costly, at $80 a day in Tennessee, to incarcerate someone for one night. You have to assume all the healthcare, you have to assume the dental, the clothing, the laundry. That’s the reason that the county jail, if you have one person incarcerated that has HIV or Hep C, the medical treatments for that are amazingly expensive.

I saw what the drug epidemic was doing to the community and how costly it was affecting us all with taxes to staff and build. But yet, I didn’t see anyone saying conclusively, that if we keep going this way, we’re going to eventually end it. With ACEs, how could we protect a child? When I did work in healthcare, we had 50 school districts in our healthcare footprint. What if we had 50 trauma-sensitive school districts, how many more kids would, over 10 years, 15 years, affect the health of a region? If a lot of that was mitigated in a school setting, teachers who were trained in college to deal with “willful” behavior all of a sudden were trained now to know it as survival behavior. Instead of kicking them out, we hold them more tightly, you know, and what was that going to look like over time.

It definitely impacts the community.

Continue to Part 3 of 3

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Learning More about ACEs and Fostering Positive Childhood Experiences with Becky Haas: Part 1 of 3

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“From overcrowded prisons, hospitals delivering staggering rates of babies whose mothers are addicted, to finding foster care shortfall solutions and public-school systems where I first heard phrases like, cradle to prison and school to prison pipeline.  As a mother and grandmother, I wondered who are the children that are born with a predisposition heading them into prison?

~ BeckyHaas.com

Becky Haas Interview with API for AP Month 2020:

Parenting with PEACE, Part 1 of 3

Trigger warning: this post contains brief mention of child abuse events in the fifth paragraph of Part 1.

API is pleased to interview Becky Haas as part of AP Month this year. Becky is an international presenter of trauma-informed care and the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, as well as a pioneer in successfully developing trauma-informed communities. Her seasoned presentation experience includes trips to Delaware presenting to state leadership at the invitation of their First Lady, as well as the training of multiple juvenile justice systems in both Virginia and Tennessee. She developed Trauma-Informed Policing training – now certified in two states for officer in-service credit – and has delivered it to the Oklahoma City Police Department, as well as precincts within Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. She has worked in partnership with the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police (TACP) to make Trauma-Informed Policing Training available to officers statewide. Becky is a highly sought-out trainer for educators, often working directly with school superintendents. Together, they impact entire school districts on their journey to creating trauma-sensitive schools.

When I heard about trauma-informed care, I was shocked at the brave people walking around among us, that so many people are trauma survivors.

Becky has served as the Trauma-Informed Administrator for a regional healthcare system, providing training development and delivery to healthcare staff in multiple hospitals, and she was instrumental in raising awareness of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as a social determinant to poor health and addiction within rural Appalachia. Becky serves as a consultant to the East Tennessee State University/Ballad Health Strong Brain Institute and helped to pioneer the Northeast Tennessee ACEs Connection. Becky is married to Jonathan, and their greatest joys in life are their two sons and their growing families.

Becky, ACEs – adverse childhood experiences – have brought people together from many different fields, and I would like to hear about your background and what brought you to this work.

I’m actually trained in ministry, and for 24 years I worked in the church that I still attend. I was involved with recruiting volunteers, education programs, pastoral care, and visitation. I also taught law enforcement in 33 counties of Tennessee about car seat safety for six years through a grant-funded program at East Tennessee State University.

My prayer had been that whatever kind of work I could do, that it would just be something that made a difference for people. In 2012, that landed me working for the Johnson City Police Department, where I directed an $800,000 crime reduction grant to reduce drug related and violent crime. I had no criminal justice background, but I had to bring together a community coalition to address four strategies around that grant. It ended up being 19 programs that 35 agencies did together, and we won two national awards. We won the most prestigious criminal justice award of the year in 2014, Outstanding Criminal Justice Program of the Year for the Southern region. Maybe it helped coming into this role that I had no criminal justice background, as I wasn’t focused on “the way things are always done;” instead I brought a fresh approach to looking at all the causal factors of crime and how community partners could address them. During this time, I learned the value of the collective impact of bringing all voices to the table. We had public housing, city government, libraries, and corrections – that really made an impression on me. Here, I learned about ACEs in my journey at the police department.

Between hearing the two of them 30 days apart, I felt like I’d heard the cure for cancer.

One of the pillars of the grant was to create an intervention to reduce recidivism. I’ve lived in the community since the seventies, but I had not spent much time with the prison population or the judges who worked with the first judicial district felony offenders. They wanted to create the perimeter that the program would be for high-risk, high-need felony offenders with addictions. So, working with this population for years, I hear about ACEs in the second year of that, and I hear their stories of being raped by a parent, being raped by a relative, being held in a closet, I just wondered: why was ACEs not a part of the toolkit? Why was this education not widely known? When I heard about trauma-informed care, I was shocked at the brave people walking around among us, that so many people are trauma survivors.

And now ACEs and trauma-informed care are a part of many programs, largely because of your work. ACEs is being addressed in schools, hospitals, foster care, businesses, and of course law enforcement. What other audiences have you been working with and advising?

Before I told anyone what I was learning at the police department, I’d gone to two national conferences, and at one, Dr. [Vincent] Felitti spoke (Principal researcher of the ACEs study). Then I went to another, a probation conference in Florida where I heard Dr. Joan Gillece, who at the time was the Director of the National Center for Trauma Informed Care Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Between hearing the two of them 30 days apart, I felt like I’d heard the cure for cancer.

“What if I came back and didn’t tell my town?,” it struck me, as I almost felt now that I’d be held responsible if I didn’t. My first step was creating a huge binder, putting 35 tabs in it representing all the agencies who were helping me do crime prevention – the library, healthcare, housing authority, faith community, judges, etc. I then researched mostly using the global online learning collaborative, ACEs Connection, to see if there were meaningful applications for using a trauma lens in all those settings. I honestly didn’t know what I was going to find. I thought maybe it would apply to a few – but at the end, I could not close the notebook! When I found a program that was making a difference and having good outcomes, I printed it off, put it in the notebook. After a few months of research, every single tab — juvenile justice, schools — every single tab had an application for using a trauma-informed lens. So that convinced me that there was a need to bring this approach into every kind of service. Then I went over to East Tennessee State University (ETSU), and presented my findings to some department chairs to see who might help me educate the community. In 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had published a concept paper that recommended reducing the effects of childhood trauma in a public health approach by way of community education of the cross sectors of professionals.

From that meeting at ETSU, Dr. Andi Clements emerged to help me. We never asked anyone if we could train them, but one by one, the group of partners I already had around the table every month for my policing program began to want training. In less than three years, we trained over 4,000 professionals while it wasn’t even in our job description nor did we have any funding to do it. I would get in the office at 6:00 in the morning to keep my 19 police programs running so that no one would ever feel that I took away from my job to do that.

In 2017, we wrote the National Center for Trauma Informed Care to ask if we could host a webinar in 2018 of all the cities that have been doing this kind of work. We wanted to learn from them. In response they said, “We don’t know of a city that has trained such a diverse group of professionals about trauma informed care in one community.” That was the first time we knew something special had happened in Johnson City. So, in 2018 we were asked to host a forum and tell our story. Attending the forum were two governors’ wives, people from 20 states, and leaders from SAMHSA. After hearing our story, they told us we had created a model that other cities should follow for how to create a trauma-informed community.

There’s a responsibility by the people who hear about it to do something with it.

In 2019 Dr. Clements and I wrote a toolkit, funded by the Tennessee Building Strong Brains Grant, on Building a Trauma Informed System of Care for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. In the summer, we received notification that an article on the toolkit we had submitted to Johns Hopkins was accepted to be published in their journal, Community Progress in Community Health, Research, Education, and Action in December. The toolkit has also been recommended in Growing Resilient Communities 2.1, through the global online collaborative ACEs Connection. It provides step-by-step information on how to advocate, educate, and collaborate to create a trauma-informed community.

The message you’re bringing communities, that you recognize as effective, is to advocate, collaborate, and educate. Can you describe how you want communities to advocate, educate and collaborate?

You take these three actions to raise awareness about the ACEs Study and how to build resilient communities. The SAMHSA course, which we’ve used to train thousands, describes a trauma-informed organization or community as those who:

  1. Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand the potential paths of recovery.
  2. Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved in the system.
  3. Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices.
  4. and seeks actively to Resist Re-traumatization. ~SAMHSA

There’s a responsibility by the people who hear about it to do something with it. In the SAMHSA training, there are six pillars: Safety, Trustworthiness & Transparency, Peer support, Collaboration & Mutuality, Empowerment & Choice, and Cultural, Historical & Gender issues. Dr. Clements and I framed it up as an inventory instead of just facts: Is your program safe? Do people feel safe there? Do they feel you’re trustworthy?

Now the work I’m doing is to bring this message to groups on a national level. Most recently, I’ve trained all the childcare leadership in the state of Mississippi and in Tennessee. I’m working with the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police to create a professionally recorded video training of my Trauma-Informed Policing training that will be made available to all members of law enforcement statewide.

I turned the pyramid upside down to explain the concept of resilience and hope. At the upper level, we infuse the community with empathy and understanding.

My hope is that by telling people what trauma is, and about its universal prevalence, we can create an environment that helps trauma survivors heal.

In understanding ACEs, the top of the coin is trauma and childhood household dysfunction, but on the bottom of the coin is resiliency. We’ve learned that resiliency can happen in the community. Resiliency can happen through a Boys and Girls Club, for example.

As communities learn about ACEs, I feel by using a trauma-informed lens to provide services, we could mitigate the effects of trauma, maybe by 50%. In the ACEs pyramid that came out of the original ACEs study, the base is childhood adversity, all the way to the top which is early death. In the training I deliver, I turn the pyramid upside down to explain the concept of resilience and hope. At the upper level, we infuse the community with empathy and understanding. The shop clerk who is very rude? Don’t take it personally. They may just have been served divorce papers, or failed a class at the university that they were barely affording anyway.

Then the middle layer is much more social work, much more navigating because many tasks we need to do in life are hard. But if your life is overwhelmed with trauma, you’re likely not going to do those things, because it’s too hard. It’s too complicated. The middle part of the model is more what I call “warm hand holding.” The bottom part is clinical interventions which are important, but not always essential.

I’ve heard story after story of people who healed, were helped, and were set on a good path by interacting with the upper and middle levels of the funnel. One recent story that I heard on the CBS news earlier this year, before COVID, is a favorite for illustrating the upper level. It’s about a bus driver in Utah, who loved driving the school bus. In this particular school year, she had a little girl getting on her bus, 11 years old, who she just struck up a friendship with. One thing she noticed about the little girl was how she always had her hair braided. A few months into the school year, one day, the little girl not on the bus.  This expanded into a whole week missing. The next week on Monday, the bus driver was relieved to see the little girl back on the bus, but she noticed her hair was messed up and not braided. The driver reasoned to herself the little girl must have overslept. However, the next day the little girl got on the bus but again for several days her hair was not braided. Finally, the fourth day, the bus driver said to the little girl, “I sure miss those braids.” And the little girl said to her, “Last week, my mommy died and my daddy doesn’t know how to braid hair.” This touched the bus driver so much that after she dropped the children off at school, she went to Walmart to buy a clean hairbrush and a bag of bows. Every day after that, she began to brush and braid the little girl’s hair before she got off the bus and went into school. The teachers noticed that this single act brought that child in with a smile again, adding a little bit of a spark to her step.

It was so remarkable. They said something to the principal, who said something to the superintendent, and that story was on their local news. It made the national CBS news. That’s the top of the funnel of hope. In similar fashion, after training we now have librarians who realize youth coming in have not had anything to eat so they keep a snack drawer along with hygiene products. A local high school started a program called, “Suds for Buds” after students were trained about ACEs. They realized some of their classmates did not have access to these products at home so now they can clean up at school.

Can you see how this message is helping communities work the top and the middle part of the funnel to reduce the effects of adverse childhood experiences? There is a wonderful pilot program locally that is working to improve workforce sustainability by providing a navigator to the human resource departments of a couple of very large companies. As part of the employee benefits, they can access the navigator to find resources for things like paying their rent or purchasing a new set of tires without any blaming or shaming.  This enables employees to stay on the job instead of struggling and quitting – actions which only contribute to a domino effect of complications.

Continue to Part 2 of 3

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Nurturing parenting is an essential basic need of all children

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“There is a sensible way of treating children. … Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task. Try it out. … You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it. … When I hear a mother say ‘Bless its little heart’ when it falls down, or stubs its toe, or suffers some other ill, I usually have to walk a block or two to let off steam. Can’t the mother train herself when something happens to the child to look at its hurt without saying anything…?” ~ Psychological Care of Infant & Child by James B. Watson, Norton Press, 1928

Reading this excerpt of a wildly popular parenting book from 1928, as you breastfeed your baby or cosleep with your toddler or cuddle with your preschooler or hug your preteen or put your arm around your teen’s shoulders, how do you feel it was like for your great-grandmother to be admonished for instinctively loving her child, only to be told that her instinct is exactly what would damage that child?

Parenting has come along way since 1928. john bowlby with richard bowlbyBy the time our grandparents were caring for their babies in the 1950s, psychoanalyst John Bowlby was making great strides in scientific circles with research demonstrating the enormous impact that nurturing — and lack of nurturing — had on child development. This important body of research has since greatly influenced parenting advice.

Eventually Bowlby’s work would be integrated into the ever-expanding domains of research, including breastfeeding science, that has sent a shock wave of nurturing-oriented parenting around the world.

In 1994, as our parents were caring for us at home, La Leche League Leaders and schoolteachers Lysa Parker and Barbara Nicholson cofounded Attachment Parenting International as a way to educate and support parents in raising children with abundant warmth and nurturing. The tide was still changing then, but today, we are free to nurture our children without a feeling of shame. We can kiss and hug them. We can let them sit on our laps.

best-gift-yourselfThe child-rearing “experts” just a few generations ago would be appalled at how today’s parent educators encourage affection, nurturing touch, and comforting of our children. Research has since established how incredibly beneficial — in fact, absolutely critical — to child development that we are nurturing toward our babies and children.

But the impacts of the hands-off approach to parenting that our great-grandmothers experienced has had far-reaching effects. Remnants survive still today. They’re there whenever someone asks us if our baby is sleeping through the night yet, or suggests we try “cry it out” to teach our baby to self-soothe, or warns us that holding our baby too much will spoil her, or insists that babies be weaned by their first birthday, or maintains that children be spanked, or advises any parenting approach that promotes so-called early independence and obedience over normal, healthy child development and sensitively met needs.

We hear it from our family members, our schools, our pediatricians, our politicians, parenting books that continue to be published influenced by this old-fashioned thinking despite the mountains of research to the contrary — ideas of how children should be raised, based on personal opinion rather than research-backed fact, subtle revelation of how our society is still scared of giving “too much” nurturing to our children. It’s a pervasive situation that still needs to be addressed.

janetThe fact is, nurturing isn’t damaging. Babies and children need nurturing like they need food or shelter — nurturing is an essential basic need — and they are biologically designed to expect and receive nurturing.

Nurturing parenting is actually easier in the long term than the hands-off approach first touted to our great-grandmothers and continued to be promoted in widespread advice, not only because responsive parents are not constantly fighting their own instincts and therefore undermining their confidence, but also because responsive parenting prevents future parenting lornaissues, like behavior problems, that arise from not meeting our babies’ and children’s biological needs. A child who grows up learning that his biological needs for nurturing will go unmet or be misunderstood is a child who will increasingly develop ways of communication and interaction that are less healthy in future relationships.

Nurturing parenting is an early investment whose payoff continues well beyond the short term. When a child’s biological need for nurturing is consistently met, positive discipline naturally emerges. The trust that children develop 865056_grand_mother_and_childas a result of having their emotional needs met sets a foundation of parent-child interaction that doesn’t have to rely on threats, shame, punishment, rewards, or other forms of coercion for behavior control.

Research and children unanimously agree that warm and nurturing parenting is not only optimal, but required for healthy development. The child’s brain develops in response to the care received, so children with less optimal caregiving are more likely to experience challenges not only in their childhoods but across their lifetimes.

Reams of research tell us the obvious: that high levels of family stress can contribute to profound effects on a child’s ability to learn, remember, emotionally self-regulate, and succeed in adulthood.

Many parents carry with them the unaddressed traumas of childhood with limited nurturing or harshness, passed down through the generations since their great-grandparents’ time. This trauma legacy may show up in subtle, or obvious, over-reactions or under-reactions to normal, healthy child behaviors. We silently pass the legacy to our children and their children when we fail to observe the effect on our families and instead find confirmation and justification in the surviving remnants of 1928 child-rearing advice still popular today.

Research is continually finding new ways to illustrate the impact of abundant nurturing on our children. Brain scans show physical differences between the shape and connectivity of different areas of the brain involved in socio-emotional and cognitive functioning. Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) studies outline shockingly common, everyday interactions and events that are processed, but remain unrecognized, as traumas that can increase risk of not only mental but physical illness. Tests on heart function and hormone levels reflect how the body reacts to emotionally stressful events that were previously assumed limited to our thoughts.

Increasingly, we are learning that our emotional psychology has as physical roots as our bodily health — and how much our experiences as babies and young children, especially, form a foundation that can either be stable and secure, or predispose us to a susceptibility of lifelong difficulties.

Attachment Parenting International works to bring a wide body of authoritative, decades-worth of scientific evidence, as well as emerging research, to support parents and influence professionals and society. The common theme of this research clearly points to the critical importance of nurturing our children and describes behaviors that can provide this type of caregiving.

The research calls for parents to examine their assumptions, expectations, and thoughts regarding child-rearing and to then make changes to how they view themselves, children, and parenting to better reflect their goals, values, and healing. Many parents choose not to do this — to instead parent on autopilot, which is easier than parenting with intention — but our unexamined, default modes of parenting are how family legacies of pain pass silently from one generation to the next.

support1Our children are worth the effort to do the best we can. They’re our future, and we want them to be ready and excited for that future, free of emotional traumas borne of parenting ideas of nearly a century ago. Your donation helps Attachment Parenting International support parents. Every dollar counts.

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A Holiday Gift Guide to Cultivating Fewer Collections and More Connection

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emily holiday post memeEnjoy this APtly Said reprint by Emily Van Bogaert

The holiday season is upon us. As chilly winds begin to blow and the days become short and gray, we are given the opportunity to draw our loved ones near and celebrate what brings warmth, light and love into our lives in the face of cold and darkness. We return to family traditions, created and recreated year after year, to strengthen the ties that bind and celebrate the joy that comes with feeling connected to family and friends near and far.

And then — like a scratch in the record playing our favorite carol — we are bombarded by harsh interruptions at every turn: Glossy newspaper toy ads and email specials blanket our surroundings like a fresh blanket of consumerist snow…loud, boisterous commercials on the radio boom into our speakers as an overwhelming list of wants and needs, and often lies and insecurities, fill our minds…our children, so sensitive and eager to celebrate, start to fill up their elaborate wish lists as visions of sugar plums dance in their heads…grown-ups race from place to place, checking off lists, and fulfilling obligations, wondering in the back of their minds, Will our gifts be enough to bring joy to our loved ones? Will our funds be enough to provide a bounty of food and drinks on our table? Are we doing enough to make this holiday season special?

emily van boegartSo, before those discouraging feelings start to creep into your warm heart, I need to tell you something: You are most certainly enough, friend. I see how much you care about your loved ones, and the incredible attention and effort you put into making the holidays picture-perfect and full of good cheer. And I also want to tell you something else. You, yes you, are the greatest gift you can give your friends and family. Ask them; they’ll tell you it’s true.

Instead of getting carried away with the pressures of consumerism, let’s put our heads together and find a way to reclaim this season for the values and truths we hold dear in our hearts. Don’t get me wrong — giving amazing gifts can feel magical for both the giver and the receiver, and we absolutely can and should share our bounty with one another. But as we give gifts and spread joy, let’s use the occasion to be intentional and celebrate who and what actually matters most to us.

Since breaking patterns and changing habits can be hard work, I’ve gathered a list of ways you can make the season a little bit brighter as you give to those who are closest to you:

  1. Buy local, support artists and artisans, and invest in quality — You can use your holiday gift-giving as a way to connect with people and things that matter to you. Find local and independent businesses that share your values and worldview. That could include a boutique that sources fair-trade merchandise, businesses that support diversity and equality, shops that feature lovingly handmade items and goods made with sustainable materials, performances that move you, services delivered with great care and skill, and nonprofits that benefit causes close to your heart. You can maximize the goodness of your generosity by supporting businesses that in turn support the vibrant, ethical and thriving communities to which you would like to belong.
  2. DIY, thrift, trade and upcycle — Creating useful crafts or making food can be a relaxing way to spend time, and a fulfilling way to meditate on how much someone means to you as you make their gift. Not crafty? There’s no shame in scoring a one-of-a-kind vintage item, a perfectly broken-in hardback book, or a nearly new toy or game at a second-hand shop. Reach out to friends to swap new-to-you items into your family’s rotation. Save time and resources by reusing gift bags or by wrapping gifts with cloth that can be reused again and again: Pillowcases make great gift bags, and baby’s outgrown receiving blankets make excellent Furoshiki-style wrapping cloths. Think outside the box, and let your creativity flow.
  3. Set some boundaries — This is a challenging one. Nobody likes to be told how and what to give. However, if a gentle and thoughtful request is made to express your family’s need for more connection and fewer collections, your loved ones will likely hear and honor those feelings. Go ahead, be courageous and ask grandparents to limit themselves to 1 gift per person or the gift of an experience if your child’s toy chests runneth over. Chances are that their beloved grandchild will end up with a truly thoughtful, useful, meaningful gift they will be elated to receive, and grandparents can kick off their shoes and spend a little more time snuggling and less time shopping. Parents can use the “want/need/wear/read” method to cover the basics and the fun stuff for the littles without going overboard. Families big and small can also benefit from gift drawings, and there are many ways to make them fun and easy, from online gift-drawing generators to gift-swapping games.
  4. Give to those in need — Feel a twinge of sadness and guilt when you drive under the expressway with a trunk full of groceries and gifts only to see a person who is cold, homeless and hungry? Me, too. It’s easy to become paralyzed in those uncomfortable feelings, but we have the power to make a difference. There is more than enough to go around, but only if we stop spending frivolously for the benefit of huge corporations and simply share what we have with our fellow human beings. There are so many ways to share our relative abundance and to connect with those who have less. You can donate individually or collectively to your favorite charity, spend some quality time with friends and family volunteering for a great cause, or plan an acts of kindness advent for your family. Reach out to someone who is lonely or suffering by sharing your meal, listening to their story or simply letting them know you care.
  5. Don’t believe the hype — Stuff does not equal joy. After joyous celebrations, many of us wake up to an inevitable overwhelming and treacherous mess the day after our gift-giving holidays: piles of items we neither want nor need, trash bags full of discarded papers and packaging, the heavy and heart-wrenching burden of returning and regifting. The waste and inefficiencies of the holidays can put a big ol’ damper on all the fun festivities. The practice of over-consuming often turns good intentions and generosity into drudgery and uncomfortable obligations. Blech.
  6. Give the gift of not getting gifts — What do you get for the person who has everything they need and the means to get what they want when they want it? Um, nothing? Let’s face it, purchasing a gift for the sake of going through the motions feels contrived and wasteful. Sometimes we have the option to let each other off the collective hook and simply agree to ditch the ritualistic consumerism. Feeling sassy — or fed up — enough to try it? High five!
  7. Treat yourself — The holidays can be a very stressful time of year for many, but you don’t have to consume material goods to get a boost. Taking the time to fill your own cup with something warm and nourishing gives you more energy to share love with others. Recharge your batteries by bundling up to take a walk in the woods, laughing — or crying — with friends or by taking a nice long bath. In the hustle and bustle of the season, simple pleasures are where it’s at.
  8. Presence over presents — Ultimately, there are many ways to use holiday gift-giving as an occasion to share your time, talents and loving kindness with your special people. Whether you surprise someone with the promise of a fun outing or opportunity to learn something new, offer to lend a helping hand, or simply show up with hot buttered rum and make someone smile, time spent together can be an incredible gift. We can celebrate the relationships we already have and invest in them with our time and attention. You have the option to spend more time baking cookies with a child and less time sitting in traffic in cold, dark parking lots. We have a nearly endless supply of opportunities to create memories and a lifetime’s worth of time to enjoy them.

Now is the time to take a moment to start thinking about how we celebrate this season and determine if it truly enriches us in the ways we want and need. We may not have all the answers to make a perfectly peaceful and joyous holiday season, but we can start asking questions:

  • What will we do this year to bring more joy into our own hearts and the hearts of others?
  • Will this be the year we stop participating in rituals that make us feel sad, insecure and financially overextended?
  • How can we replace unhealthy habits with ones that make us feel more grateful, united, connected and harmonious?

The pressure to spend our social currency, time and hard-earned dollars feeding a never-ending cycle of insecurity and greed through the consumption of mass-produced material goods is immense. It’s up to us to remember that we have the power to spend our time, resources and energy wisely and generously to build relationships and communities that lift us all up. Maybe, just maybe, we can start to set down the shopping lists and bags of presents so that we may reach out our hands, hold those we love closer, and begin to spread love and kindness all year long.

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When it Pours for Moms, Help them RAIN! Your Being, their Well-being!

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Exclusive to AP Month 2020 “Parenting with PEACE -” with our focus on positive childhood experiences – API is pleased to welcome this special guest post from Christina Bethell: PhD, MBA, MPH Professor, Johns Hopkins University.

Blue earth with parents and children of different backgrounds standing all around edge and words attachment parenting month in the centerBeing a consistently kind and positive parent can be challenging, especially when children are also struggling or stressed.  Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, national data showed that over 1 in 3 children had moms who were not coping very well.1 And over 2 in 5 had parents who struggled to stay hopeful or find strengths to draw on when things were hard.  These parents were three times more likely to report routinely feeling angry and aggravated with their child.1 


Our best research calls for doing all we can to foster positive parent-child experiences.


About 1 in 4 US children have mothers who do not experience excellent or very good mental health and are less likely to cope, remain resilient and connect positively with their child. This is especially true for the more than 4 in 10 US children with parents who face economic, safety or household problems like someone who drinks too much, has untreated mental illness or is emotionally or physically abusive.1  Perhaps a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is the light it shines on the need and possibilities to support moms and families by encouraging them (and their children) to reach out for help: to reduce longstanding sources of stress, build resilience, hope and strengths, and prioritize positive emotional connections with their children – especially during difficult times.


We can help moms recognize and heal from their own pain and build resilience, while also helping their children flourish.


Research points to transformational opportunities to promote both parent and child well-being by helping them build skills to recognize their stress; allow the feelings to move (and pass); identify core needs for compassion, care and support; and nurture themselves and reach out when they struggle. Taught by Tara Brach, the RAIN model (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture) works.2 As do similar approaches.2 RAIN paves the way for mothers and children to withstand challenges and stay emotionally connected during difficult times. It also supports clinicians to cope and learn from challenges, which, in turn, helps their clients.2 

Red umbrella graphic with text: Parenting with peace daily tip - Do you find it easy or hard to talk to your family about feelings? Talking to your children about feelings is a positive childhood experience.Our best research calls for doing all we can to foster positive parent-child experiences: like talking together about things that really matter, looking for strengths and reasons to hope, and reaching out for support during hard times.3,4   The benefits are long lasting for us all.  Our recent research shows that fostering the most important positive childhood experience of all- safe and nurturing connection with parents-markedly reduces the risk of having depression or poor mental health as an adult. This increases the chances of having the social and emotional support they need later in life, when they might be parents too.3,4 

When it pours down for moms, help them RAIN!2  In doing so we can help moms recognize and heal from their own pain and build resilience, while also helping their children flourish4 and become healthy adults,3 despite the challenges of life.

  1. Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, National Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health, Johns Hopkins University. 2017-2018 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) national data findings accessed 10.20.20 at www.childhealthdata.org.  Additional NSCH analyses conducted for this article by C. Bethell, 10.20.20. 
  2. Hedderman E, O’Doherty V, O’Connor S. Mindfulness moments for clinicians in the midst of a pandemic [published online ahead of print, 2020 May 21]. Ir J Psychol Med. 2020;1-4. doi:10.1017/ipm.2020.59
  3. Bethell CD, Jones J, Gombojav N, Linkenbach J, Sege R. Positive and Adverse Childhood Experiences: Interactions and Effects on Adult Health Outcomes. JAMA Peds 9.09.19
  4. Bethell CD, Gombojav N, Whitaker RC. (2019). Family Resilience And Connection Promote Flourishing Among US Children, Even Amid Adversity. Health Affairs. 38(5). May 2020
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Feeling Tense? Find Peace Amidst the Chaos.

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It’s 3pm and my husband and I are beginning the office swap. There are conversations to have, phones ringing, toddlers fussing, and a pre-teen asking if she can watch TV in exchange for watching the baby. I have 15 minutes to transition from mom to professional. I have to fill my husband in on the school work, the plan for dinner, and what is going on with the kids – and he is still two hours away from the end of his workday. The irony of this all is that we chose this long before any virus forced us into it!

Laptop on crowded desk with infant toys, coffee, and planner

Our competing needs clash every day. And it isn’t just the competing needs of my husband and me. In the mix are also the needs that our children have for love, attention, affection, and time. This often crashes into our need to provide financially for our family, and our need for professional and personal fulfillment. Every day, I wake up to the challenge of balancing the needs of two working parents and a family of five children ranging from 1 to 11.

It is a life full of opportunities to recognize my limitations as a human being.

One of my favorite songs is “I’m no SuperMan.” And I often find myself singing it as I go through my day. Occasionally it is accompanied by an equally valid and important mantra from St. Joan of Arc, “I was born for this.” These two phrases are my mantra as a mom: I am no Superman or woman and I was born for this. The first step in balancing all of this competition for time, space, and attention is to recognize that I have needs that are just as valid as my children’s and husband’s.


I can love my work and love my children. I can be excited and sad about the same things. By cultivating a mindfulness practice in my life, I can walk in that uncomfortable both/and place.


When I am working with clients, it becomes clear that most adults don’t know how to name their needs, often having wrongly learned that their needs are just ‘wants.’ They believe themselves to be selfish. When we show up in our lives believing that we are selfish, we see everyone else as selfish. We  then stop being able to read the needs of the people we love the most. The reality is that if we cannot name and honor our own needs, we can never hope to honor those of children. To help you think about what your needs may be, I have compiled a list.

Examples of Adult Needs:

I need to use the bathroom

I need to hydrate – (drink a cold icy glass of water, or in the winter maybe a hot cup of tea)

I need to eat

I need to move my body

I need to go outside

I need to go walk / run

I need to see a friend

I need to breathe deeply

I need to stretch

I need my spouses/ loved one’s support

I need to know that someone is proud of me

I need empathy

I need a hug

I need to complete a task

I need to be alone

I need to take a shower

I need to learn something new

I need to talk about something that is bothering me

I need to laugh, sing, dance

I need to play

I need to reminisce

I need to pursue my career

I need to use my talents & skills & gifts

Steaming hot cup of tea in woman's hands with soft light streaming through window

Like most adults, I used to believe that my needs were just ‘wants’ and sacrificing for my children was the most important thing I could do; it made me an A+ mom. I put on the SuperWoman cape every morning and melted into a heap of tears, wondering how I could be better tomorrow. More patient. More kind. Give more of myself to my children and husband. Having 5 children means I have spent a significant amount of my adult life questioning how I could be a better mom, how I could perfect this doing it all.

And then I woke up to the reality that I couldn’t; I absolutely could not do it all. I had needs, and no amount of ignoring them would make them magically disappear.

One of my needs was to return to work. I needed a break from being ‘Mom’ all the time, every waking and sleeping moment being about these five amazing little beings. Through great providence I was offered a position that would allow me to return to my career, still be home with the kids, and even have the time to homeschool them.

Returning to work came with a slew of trade-offs. They included guilt, shame, fear that I was/am messing everything up, less time to cook, clean, and be everything to eYoung child asleep in starfish position with foot on dad's headveryone. But the transition also came with room to breathe in a whole new way. It brought conversations that went beyond does your baby sleep in the starfish position or the dreaded H? (note mine do both and perform baby gymnastics all night long…) And why don’t they make washing machines that can handle cloth diapers?

I remember my first day at my new job. This was the first time I had gone to work in seven years; I had on high heels, slacks, a blouse, and I was carrying a computer bag – not a diaper bag. It was freeing and scary all at once. I can still remember walking down the street, waiting for the crosswalk sign to change and feeling the wind in my hair. I existed outside of being just a mom, and it felt amazing! I also remember getting home at the end of that first day, which had lasted five hours, including the commute. Oh the tears as I raced inside to give my babies kisses before they went to bed! I couldn’t get the work clothes off fast enough, raced to snuggle down next to them and breathe in their sweet baby smells. It felt amazing.

In a world of either/or, I am living something uncharted – both/and. I can love my work and love my children. I can be excited and sad about the same things. By cultivating a mindfulness practice in my life, I can walk in that uncomfortable both/and place.light blue animated brain in the shape of a heartSometimes living both/and – allowing competing needs to exist – unleashes a fear response. Those thoughts of I am screwing everything up arrive on the scene. And when I experience fear, it triggers a physiological response known as the sympathetic nervous response (SNR).

For me I know my SNR is engaged when I am short of breath, or my shoulders think they are earrings. My jaw struggles to open and shut with ease. When I notice these body sensations, I remind myself to stop what I am doing. I ask myself, what am I scared of? Is there an active danger I need to be aware of?

 

Curious toddler peering over wooden ledge with look of amazement on her face, black and white photoIn that moment of asking, I become a better mom, a better wife, and a better human being.

In that moment, I cultivate curiosity.

Fear and curiosity live in opposition to one another; there is not room in the mind for both. When I ask questions about my surroundings, my beliefs, and my experience, I signal to my body that there is no immediate danger. It’s okay to disengage that SNR. Sometimes I need to stop and tell my husband or my kids, “Hey, I’m feeling keyed up and I’m not sure why, so can you help me out?” Sometimes the help I need is for them to stop making so much noise. Or perhaps I’m asking if they notice any of my triggers that I may be missing.

When we can recognize our body’s messages to stop and take in our surroundings, we can plan. Maybe I need to attend to an email that is bouncing around in my brain, or maybe I need to recognize that I am off until Monday, and my work will be there when I turn on the computer. Balancing family life and professional life requires awareness and tools for the clash of needs that is inevitable. The SNR  is one of our body’s greatest tools, and yet so often we seek to numb when we experience it, moving frantically through our life, desperately seeking an escape. That makes perfect sense. After all, the SNR just communicated that we were in danger and we needed to take action and move.

Those physical symptoms of heart racing, palms sweating, and holding my breath are the stop signs in my life. They are an invitation to slow down. They are an invitation to pause. They are an invitation to be mindful. Mindfulness for me is about filling my mind, filling it with the information about my surroundings, my emotions, my needs. And it provides me with the ability to move forward with purpose and intentionality.

dandelion stalk with single seed still attached on vibrant green blurred background

Part of that intentionality is leaning into the discomfort that comes from competing needs and desires. I have learned to embrace Brene Brown’s Mantra, “discomfort over resentment,” since returning to work has included many moments of discomfort and conflict. Children beg to be read to, played with, and taken out for bike rides – but I have case notes to fill out and studying to do for the licensure exam that expired while I blissfully rocked away in the nursery.

It’s uncomfortable to tell my kids no, I can’t play that game right now, because I have to finish studying this chapter. But I never want to resent playing that game with them because it means not achieving my dreams. In the world of both/and, the same is true for accepting the discomfort of saying “no” to a new potential client because I want to spend my days building block towers and playing heated games of Risk. I never want to resent my work because it stole these precious moments of my children’s young lives.

There will always be competing needs. Balance means embracing the invitation to mindfulness that comes with both/and, accepting that I have real needs, and seeking a plan to meet my needs so that I am prepared to meet those of my children.

mother and four children sitting on a blanket, having a picnic in the park

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