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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Warren

"What? You too!:" What Happens in this House Stays in this House

This blog is based on the article "Toxic stress and children’s outcomesAfrican American children growing up poor are at greater risk of disrupted physiological functioning and depressed academic achievement."

Definition: Child(ren) = infant to teenager.

"What? You, too!" is what I say when I hear of the multitude of family dysfunction that

remained hidden behind closed doors. Hidden due to flawed parental wisdom, "What happens in this house stays in this house." That is old school wisdom that is still expressed to children today, especially in Black American homes. Perhaps, it is part of many cultures. I can only speak from my vantage point as a Black American woman. In my ignorance I remember echoing that same policy to my son.

More, with a stay at home directive, remote schooling, and parents unable to work, and friends and family dying from COVID-19, a child is at risk of or experiencing more now than ever psychological, physical, and sexual abuse; seeing domestic violence; physical or emotional neglect; substance abuse, family financial hardship; homelessness; exposure to neighborhood violence; discrimination; having a family member become seriously ill or injured, be hospitalized, or die, placement in foster care or kinship care; or property loss or damage from a fire or burglary. And, there are more risks attached to phrase "what happens in this stays in this house."

However, what is hidden comes to light. Many of my good friends and I realized that we experienced 2 or more of the above events - what is now call 'Adverse Childhood Experiences' (ACEs). My surprise is that I'm not alone. Most disturbing about these childhood reflections was the sense of violence perpetrated on us and our vulnerability as dependent children. Little did I know that children exposed to ACES suffer from 'toxic stress', which, as the term implies, is poisonous to children.

Stress is also a natural response to events or things that are threatening or scary. I've been in that place with a very close relative who was an alcoholic, wanting to fight, blacking out, crying, cursing, and vomiting daily. In these circumstances, adrenaline is produced, cortisol and brain hormones secrete, and blood vessels and bronchial tubes in your lungs expand for more oxygen. Additionally, the senses are heightened. Until the threat is gone, this state of unbalance remains. When relieved the body returns to balance.

Stress becomes toxic to a child when he or she is frequently exposed to severe threatening or scary events, as mentioned earlier, for an extended period. The body sustains a ongoing state of unbalance. The sad part is that the parent(s) may be unaware of how harmful exposure to frequent and sustained events to a child(ren). This was very true in my case. As a matter of fact, I was in charge of taking care of my alcoholic relative starting at 9 years and continued well after I finished high school. Psychological and emotional abuse daily for years was a heavy burden. As a result, maladaptive behaviors, emotions, and coping skills are usually inevitable. I went through a turbulent period as a young child, teenager, and young adult.

The children do suffer. Brain growth can be stunted, causing limited brain activity that impacts learning, memory, attention, and anxiety. It can also cause problems with the immune system, opening a child up to infection. Maladaptive behaviors, emotions, coping skills follow. So, academic achievement is fettered by ACEs as well as behavior and health.

My relative wised up when she had to care for small child who saw her drunk and vomiting everywhere. She went cold turkey, in bed fro 2 weeks. I don't know if she didn't want to repeat the cycle. But she stop because it was not good for a child to see, "all that." in her words.

There are several services used as protective mechanisms for children and families. I have accessed with my son was in mental distress. And, for me, therapy. So no closed doors or secrets over here. All I know in the end, is that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), especially among low-income/working poor, can extinguish that childhood spark and zest for life in seconds. Thus, contributing to the cycle of poverty, abuse, and violence.

I and many like me were victims of adverse childhood experiences. We survive and thrive in the truth of our early life ever so gently touching our present life just enough to think never again.

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