photo courtesy of Diana Rivas
Diana Rivas had studied child development as an undergraduate, but it wasn’t until she joined a parenting group in 2019 in Davis, California, that she began to reflect on the way she herself was raised — and punished.
“My dad had experienced a lot of abuse,” she recalls. “He was raised in a small town in Mexico, and his father had used heavy corporal punishment against him. He did the same with me, because he thought that was the way discipline worked.”
Her parenting group, run by a California-based program called Family Hui, gave her another way to frame her experience. “Recognizing that this is a trauma that I carry, and that it will continue to reproduce in generations to come if I don’t stop it or intervene, was eye-opening,” Rivas says. The Family Hui group was the first place she really felt comfortable talking about her past. “It was ok for me to just share, and there was no judgment,” she says. “To the contrary, it was an opportunity to set goals for ourselves, learn tools [to help deal with triggers from my childhood] and start healing.”
Raising awareness of the generational impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — including trauma linked to harsh, abusive physical or verbal punishment — is a principal goal of Family Hui. “Why even bother doing this work if we’re not getting to the root cause of the problem?” asks Executive Director Lucy Roberts. “We’re never going to get to more thriving communities and a peaceful world unless we can have soundness in ourselves and in our families.”
The investigation into the intergenerational impact of childhood trauma took off after the landmark Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study was published in 1998. The ACE Study linked 10 types of childhood trauma to the adult onset of many chronic diseases, mental illness, violence or being a victim of violence. The study, which looked at 17,000 adults, found that ACEs are remarkably common — most people have at least one. People who have four or more different types of ACEs — about 12 percent of the population — have a 1,200 percent higher risk of attempting suicide and a 700 percent higher risk of becoming an alcoholic, compared with people who have no ACEs. (ACEs Science 101; Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)
The epidemiology of childhood adversity is one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs affects children’s brains, the short- and long-term health effects of toxic stress, how toxic stress is passed on from generation to generation, and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate ACEs science to solve our most intractable problems.
Family Hui is an offshoot of a parenting program by the same name that focused on infants and started in Hawaii 30 years ago. It began in California in 2014 aimed at parents of young children up to five years old. Like the Hawaii program, it focuses on strengthening families through promoting parental resilience, support networks and social connections, and teaching parents about parenting and child development, all elements of a framework known as protective factors. The program is funded by the California Office of Child Abuse Prevention and two chapters of First 5, and it’s free to all participants, most of whom are from low-income immigrant and refugee communities.
Although parents responded positively to the early program, Roberts was intent on finding a way to ground it in a science-based approach. Then, at a talk in 2015, she heard about the ACE Study and the other parts of ACEs science.
“I thought, holy cow, if we incorporate [ACEs science], it will transform lives,” she recalls. They added a chapter to their curriculum that explains the ACE Study and the effects of toxic stress, and provide resources culled from ACEs Connection. The curriculum now emphasizes how ACEs affect the brain, and how parents’ behavior can improve their children’s lives overall. “Moreover, with the introduction of ACEs science, we changed our curriculum to acknowledge the needs of the parents/caregivers. We recognized these adults were yesterday’s children and need love, too.”
The curriculum includes, for example, an exercise where parents are prompted to reflect on their own ACEs, the positive experiences from their childhood, and the dreams and goals they have for their own lives.
Family Hui also teaches parents about nutrition, self-calming techniques, and ways to deploy “mindful discipline” when children are acting out. It helps parents strengthen their own support systems and self-esteem.
“You can’t expect a parent to nurture a child unless they themselves understand what it means to be nurtured,” Roberts explains. And the program helps parents connect with community-based services that assist with basic needs.
Participants learn about Family Hui through word-of-mouth, schools, other parenting programs and Family Resource Centers. So far, about 430 parents in Yolo, Colusa, Sacramento, Alameda, Imperial and San Diego counties have gone through the program. And many remain in touch with people in their groups, relying on one another for support well beyond the 12 weeks.
Preliminary findings from research conducted by the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California at Davis suggests that Family Hui is making a real difference. Of the 360 people who participated in the survey, 95% agreed that “they had a better understanding of how ACEs can impact brain development, health and parenting.” Some 90% said that they could “better manage the stresses of raising a child.” And a full 96% agreed that they were “better able to enjoy my relationship with my child(ren) and my family.” The preliminary results also suggest that the program serves as an anchor for participants, some of whom are separated from their extended families. Ninety-four percent agreed that they felt “more connected with other families.”
Roberts is expecting the final report of the current research in the summer. The Center for Mind and Brain will be examining whether Family Hui strengthened protective factors in participants’ lives; whether participants have a better understanding of ACEs, and how effective the resilience activities were for participants. Roberts says that she is hoping that the Center for Mind and Brain, along with the U.C. Davis Center for Health Care Policy and Research will also embark on a new study in the Fall comparing Family Hui participants with a comparable group not in the program as another way of measuring the benefits of Family Hui.
On a recent Saturday, Muzhgan Fakhri, who studied law in Afghanistan and advocated for women who experienced domestic violence, is leading a Family Hui group on Zoom with six other mothers from Afghanistan who live in the San Diego area. During the session she’s covering information about child development and ACEs science. She shows a slide that illustrates the difference between a normal brain of a three-year-old and the brain of a child who’s been neglected. As Fakhri is briefing the mothers, a boy with large, dark eyes leans over his mother and looks curiously into the computer screen. Some of the women have their videos turned on and are listening thoughtfully. Conversation in Farsi volleys back and forth among Fakhri and the mothers.
Later, Fakhri tells me that the women, who grew up in a war-ravaged country, could easily relate to the concept of childhood adversity. “They said, ‘We are the generation that experienced poverty, violence and war.’ One woman said how during the Taliban regime, all of the girls were prohibited from being educated, which she said was the saddest experience for her during that time.”
After the women reflect on the trauma of their past, Fakhri gently steers the conversation back to the present. “We are blessed right now that we live in a better place,” she says. “We have to put our sad experiences behind us and think positively about the future. If we’re feeling good, we can raise bright kids and have a happy family.” She reminds them that there’s no limit now on how much education they can get and offers resources for those still struggling with past traumas.
Fakhri says that prior to COVID, some of the former group members had become friends and visited each other in their homes to talk things over and get support. Since COVID, that happens mostly in online chats. “One woman,” says Fakhri, “said in a chat ‘My son has been so moody this week. Do you have any advice on how to handle this? I get so mad, I have trouble controlling myself. Today I was crying and my husband had to take over.’”
A number of the women chimed in with advice, including advising a time out, an earlier bedtime, or barring him from using a computer device for play. Fakhri reminded the woman of ways to integrate the lessons they learned from ACEs science, and to calm herself. “I told her to leave her children with her husband and go for a walk and take pictures – she likes to take photographs,” she says. She reminded the woman of the legal consequences of hitting children, including the possibility of losing custody of them. Fakhri says that the woman took her advice to heart and was practicing leaving her kids with her husband when their behavior triggered her into anger.
Unlike Fakhri, most of the leaders of Family Hui groups are former participants themselves. Martha Lopez, who started as a participant and is now a program coordinator, says that she uses tools at home that she learned in the program on how to settle her rattled nerves when her children push her buttons. “I’ll do breathing exercises, or I’ll go out for a walk, or I’ll write in a journal and reflect about what I’m doing well and what I’d like to improve on,” she says.
While Lopez was learning how to train Family Hui leaders, she saw that some of the curriculum was rubbing off on her husband. He grew up in a household where yelling at kids was typical.
“He would scream a lot in our home because that how his parents were,” she says. “I told him that children don’t learn when you scream at them; they stand still because they’re scared that something else is going to happen once the screaming stops. So now I say to him, ‘Let’s just go out and take a walk and then come back and talk to them.’”
Those talks have made a difference. Most recently, Lopez watched her husband model the behavior he wanted his son to adopt. “My son screamed at my husband. My husband felt like screaming back at him, but instead he went outside and walked away. When he came back in, he told our son, ‘I don’t want you to scream at me. And I don’t want to scream at you. If you’re upset, go outside, or go to a quiet place, and then come back and we can talk about it.”
Lopez’ husband’s reaction is encapsulated in Family Hui’s section on Mindful Discipline, where it advises parents: “Push the pause button. Cage your tiger, and then respond. Teach them helpful ways for them to show their emotions by showing them through your actions.”
“If we want to make changes in our families, we have to make changes in ourselves as parents,” says Lopez. “Otherwise, that negative cycle will continue.”
Lopez says her and her husband’s efforts have paid off. “Our children are more likely to listen to us and reach out to us when they’re having a problem. I’ve seen the relationship among us grow.”
Rivas, who is also both a leader and a former participant, has noticed a similar effect. After learning about ACEs science in Family Hui, she talked to her father about ACEs.
“He feels really bad,” she says, “and there’s a lot of unresolved emotion. He admits that the period [when he was abusive] really fractured our relationship. He just wonders how different my life and his life would have been if he had known about ACEs.”