Donna Jackson Nakazawa is a well-known writer and author. Her book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology is a go-to guide for lots of us and makes her a frequent guest on podcasts.
Last week I heard Allison Morris interview her during her Healing Our Children World Summit. Morris, a self-described "trauma mama" and "single adoptive mother of a child with early developmental trauma, attachment issues, and some physical disabilities" who gathers information and resources and shares them with others.
In this particular interview, the two speak person-to-person and parent-to-parent. The information is personal and practical. For those of us who struggle with ACEs-related issues in our family life, this stuff always urgent, not academic. Nakazawa makes ACEs science immediately accessible. We can use it as parents starting today.
I listened, learned and took notes. Here’s what I found most helpful, as a mom who adopted a child with some ACEs as well as for a parent with plenty ACEs of my own.
"Manage your own stuff."
Yup, this is one of the first things Nakazawa said. This is not always easy. It might not even happen until we realize that maybe WE are a part of the problem our kid is having. Maybe it's an "aha moment, " or maybe someone points it out to us (ouch). We may have a history of inter-generational trauma that we know nothing about because we didn't even know it was traumatic, we just called it childhood or life. For me, ACEs science was life-changing because I learned what any child's body considers to be traumatic, which was different than what my notions of trauma had been.
Nakazawa spoke about how sometimes we are reactive to our kids. I know that this was the case for me when my daughter was a toddler, but I didn't know it at the time because I didn't know what highly reactive meant. We might have to learn there are other ways to be and parent, and that what we call just being us is highly reactive and the only way we know how to live and be. This may seem like common sense to many, but it’s not if we have accepted not feeling safe as a way of life.
Many of us are knee-deep in crisis or repeating patterns we swore we'd break. We may desperately want to parent better than we are capable of doing or may be so overwhelmed by our fear and stress from the past, present or both, that we can’t.
We may have focused on our children and their behaviors, problems, and issues and skipped the self-reflection part entirely, not because we are stupid but because we are stressed, unaware it’s even relevant and busy. We might have to learn what all this regulation, attachment and healing stuff even is. Others might self-regulate just fine as adults and come to learn about ACEs when baffled by a partner, friend or child. We might be shocked that love and safety in the present aren’t enough to make relationships thrive. We might not “get it” until we learn about developmental trauma, traumatic stress and the difference between being safe now and feeling safe in our skin or other ways of living while post-traumatically stressed. We might have to learn about the short and long-term impact of adverse childhood experiences to better parent, love or relate to others we care for or about.
For most of us with high ACEs, learning about ACE science can feel validating and empowering. For others, though, it can be depressing because people wonder, “What can I do now?” or “Am I doomed and is my kid, as well?”
Donna spoke of the people she met interviewed who had ACEs and who took and "met" their suffering and were able to go on a journey toward a more resilient self. She said there is no single way to heal or recover. "More often healing looks like putting together a whole group of things," she said. Parents and kids can't possibly do all the healing things that are possible because it would take 24/7 to do so. But there are things parents can do, in and outside the home, for free and with providers (discussed below). And most important to remember is that people do, in fact, heal and recover.
The people who faced suffering are some of the most compassionate, wisest and most loving people she’s met, she says. To "touch suffering, face suffering and go on a journey of healing can lead to some of the most remarkable rewarding lives she has seen." In other words, people didn't just survive, they thrive and can have amazing lives.
While the process of becoming more resilient can be ongoing, it is not only grueling, difficult or challenging. This is something Morris appreciated hearing. I too believe it’s not said, realized or remembered often enough.
One Meaningful Relationship Matters
"We know, from the research, that the presence of this loving adult makes a profound difference," said Nakazawa.
This is so important for parents to remember, helping especially when a child is in pain or suffering, and it seems that nothing we do matters. Nurturing and being there for our kids, she said, is hugely important. She gave a “big shout out” to parents because parenting is not easy, in general, but especially when our children hurt and suffer.
Nakazawa reminded parents we can help our kids "regrow neural connections." She said, this is something that can be done at any age, including with adults, as we understand the neuroplasticity of the brain, but it's even more effective while done when the brain is still developing and with kids who are in fact, still kids.
Mindful Parents Make Better Parents
Pausing, resting, relaxing and resetting is good for adults and kids. Self-care, for parents, isn't indulgent — it is beneficial. In other words, being self-aware isn't just for the introspective. There are things we can learn about becoming more mindful that help us regulate ourselves. This means we’ll parent better and be better able to teach and guide our kids to do the same. Getting ourselves soothed and centered, during conflicts and in general, ends up helping everyone. This doesn't have to be an expensive, long or involved process.
Mindfulness practices have lots of positive impacts. Meditation. Yoga. Tai Chi. Finding something that is appealing enough to do. It can also be as simple as breathing, hugging and making eye contact (see below).
I know I’ve been helped by guided imagery when too anxious to do the more still mindful practices. It's okay to abandon tools you won't use and keep searching for ones you will.
20-Second Hugs Are Magical
One of the damaging things about ACEs is the way that the inflammatory hormones flood the system. One thing that can be done to activate an anti-inflammatory response is to give a 20-second hug. Doing so produces oxytocin, that feel-good hormone that is often present in parents at birth, when breastfeeding and in adults who are in love, in friendship or feeling cared for. A good long hug she said is a "free simple thing." It's one of the ways to help neurobiologically and can often be done by many parents on a daily basis.
However, even if you are a hugger, someone with post-traumatic stress might not be. A 20-second hug can feel too long or suffocating, depending on one's past experiences. That was true for me for a long while. I practiced and now love long hugs. I even told my 14-year old this magical hug length and she started to give our dog longer hugs, too. Why not?
Make Eye Contact
Nakazawa explained that by looking into our child's eyes, we stimulate the vagus nerve. This matters because the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is regulated by the vagus nerve. So, pupil to pupil eye contact is crucial. The unconditional acceptance activates the neurobiology of healing.
Early in my healing, eye contact was difficult. I had to wear sunglasses to therapy or hid behind my bangs. So, start slow if you are working with someone traumatized by loved ones who might find this threatening at least at first. Some parents can do this at home, immediately, but some adults or kids might need some non-touch related safety built before hugging or eye contact are possible or positive.
Name & Tame Symptoms & Sensations
Nakazawa talked about the importance of what many parents might refer to as "using your words" which she was referring to as naming and taming. She explained that to help a child to verbalize feelings, even painful or hard ones, can neurobiologically cause positive changes right away. For example, she said parents can say things such as, “This is scary, and it feels difficult" or help a child learn to do so. Just this can reduce the reactivity of the amygdala (fear central). She said this naming is a way of “downshifting" so that one can move through and on from a hard feeling more easily rather than being stuck in it.
She said this is something we can do ourselves as well and it’s not only useful for challenging feelings but all of them. For example, one can say, “I feel peaceful" and name neutral or positive feelings, too.
For many with high ACEs, tuning into the body at all might take practice and guidance. It took me a long time to differentiate excitement, anxiety and stomach aches. It felt a little like I was babying myself at first, which felt goofy. However, when I treat my symptoms of fearfulness and anxiety as terrified children or animals, rather than as threats to me, I don’t suffer nearly as much or as long as I used to. So, as hokey as this self-talk and soothing stuff might sound, I have found it does the downshifting Donna described.
It's important for parents to know if their kids still feel too afraid though for any of this stuff to work. I've had times when I had nightmare hangovers and was gripped in fear I was battling alone, which was pretty consuming. I wouldn't acknowledge it but was barely present to others because I was battling symptoms no one else could see. If this might be happening a lot, for kids or adults (with a nightmare, remembered or not remembered flashbacks), some extra help and support might be needed.
Nakazawa goes in depth, in her book, about resources and research and some of the ones she mentioned on this call as potentially promising are:
- Somatic Processing
Mend & Make Repairs
There are no perfect parents, and that’s true even if one has an ACE score of 0. When we make mistakes while parenting and have lost our cool in some way we need to own it and address to keep the relationship strong. She said, doing so helps our children to relax and return to safety. It doesn't mean whatever we were angry about gets ignored, if a limit needs to be imposed, we still impose it. But we can apologize for our approach or manner and help our kid to get all of the way through the stress cycle as opposed to them being stuck in stress. In essence, we resolve rather than bury a conflict and keep the stress from festering and damaging our kids and our relationships.
What I learned in this one-hour interview is that self-care is first-rate parenting and that we can do things every day to build and restore a sense of safety and love for ourselves and our kids. Some are as brief as eye contact or a 20-second hug.
If we have high stress from the past or the present, or both, self-care isn’t optional. It’s necessary, healthful and protective. I used to think self-care was for the rich, indulgent, selfish and lazy, like “retail therapy” for those with disposable income. I didn’t think it applied to me. I think otherwise now.
The more self-care I do, the better able I will be to provide my kid with a low-ACE childhood, which will have lifelong benefits for her.
Notes: The webinar interview is no longer available for free online. However, if you want to sign up for a week of other free webinars or find out about purchasing the whole two-week summit, you can do so here.