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22/10/2021

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Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and how the Church can help

 

Most of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lives—something that has affected who we are, informing our character and influencing our decisions. Whilst the traumatic experience, in and of itself, might have been negative; with the love and support of family and friends (and sometimes professional support services), trauma can build resilience and strengthen character and resolve. Good can come from bad. But what happens if trauma repeats itself, and there’s no one around to help?

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or “ACEs”, can be a single event or prolonged threats to, and breaches of, a child’s safety, security, trust or bodily integrity.  The main ACEs currently identified throughout literature and practice are: parental separation, mental health problems, child verbal abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse, child neglect, alcohol misuse, drug abuse and parent incarceration. In some areas, physical ill health and disability in the family is also recognised as an adverse experience that can have long-term detrimental effects on children’s life chances.

Studies show that children who experience multiple ACEs (four or more) in childhood are more likely to have poor physical and mental health and to engage is health-harming behaviours such as drinking, smoking or taking drugs.

Cumulative exposure to adversity causes stress that behaves as a toxin in the developing brain of a child. In the absence of protective factors, this toxic stress can change a child’s neural architecture and result in emotional disorders and cognitive deficits. Childhood trauma is not something you just get over as you grow up; the repeated stress of abuse, neglect and parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain. This unfolds across a lifetime, to the point where those who’ve experienced high levels of trauma are at triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer.

Whilst poverty should not be confused with Adverse Childhood Experiences, Dr Morag Treanor (Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at Stirling University) notes, “…when poverty and ACEs coincide, they become more than the sum of their parts. When a child lives with ACEs, and also lives in poverty, the conditions are ripe for long-lasting trauma, or toxic stress, which is devastating to children in childhood, and which continues on into adulthood.”

Before Covid-19 there were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK. Executive Director and Clinical Child Psychologist Dr Eli Gardner recently wrote: 
Poverty has an impact on parents’ ability to manage stressful events and can make good family functioning and strong parent-child relationships difficult. Parents who lack a sense of competence not only show less adequate parenting, but also tend to withdraw from interactions with the child and give up addressing problem behaviours altogether. One does not have to think too hard to imagine the psychological impact of pre-existing familial trauma exacerbated by a situation where fraught relationships have no room to breathe.

Then, mix a pandemic into the melting pot of poverty and ACEs, and an already-serious situation amplifies. Buttle UK’s State of Child Poverty Report 2021 is an assessment of the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 crisis on families and young people living in poverty, and highlights the most common ACEs (according to respondents) as:

  • Mental health problems (63% of children and young people)
  • Parental separation (63%)
  • Verbal abuse (61%)
  • Domestic abuse (59%)
Support workers reported that all ACEs have been made worse by Covid-19, of these:
  • Family mental illness was seen having been impacted most, with 48% saying that it was ‘a lot more severe.’
  • Domestic violence was next with 38% reporting it being ‘a lot more severe.’     
In explaining these increases in severity, frontline support workers highlighted:
  • A lack of access to support—both through informal networks (i.e. family and friends) and formal support services.
  • A lack of respite for parents.
  • Reduced time in education, meaning that the issues that schools often monitored have not been picked up.
  • Decreased levels of exercise, poor diets and increased isolation.

When frontline workers were asked what was going to be the most crucial form of support for children going forward, overwhelmingly, their response was mental health support (at 48%).

How can the Church help? Drawing families out of seclusion and into community is of one of the ways that children who are struggling with ACEs can be noticed and prescribed some of the support they so desperately need in order to flourish in life. Strengthening families is a team effort, with the government and voluntary sector working together to support those facing adversity—and when the effort falls short, the Church, whose mandate is to have a conscience for those in need (the poor, lonely, destitute and downtrodden), must step in and bridge the gap for those at risk of falling into it.

Research has shown that the most effective early intervention to help children is group based parenting programmes.  At Kids Matter, we partner with local churches to equip mums, dads and carers facing disadvantages with the tools (confidence, competence and community) to build strong families, thus reducing the impact of poverty on children. Our trained facilitators come into contact with parents and carers trying their best to manage households and bring up children who encounter traumatic experiences on a regular basis. Whilst we cannot fix poverty or erase ACEs, we recognise that confident parenting plays an important part in bridging the gap (between parent and child) created by trauma.

Together, we can build a future where children flourish. 

To find out more about Kids Matter, please contact us at info@kidsmatter.org.uk.
 
Sources:
Poverty as an Adverse Childhood Experience – NCMJ (https://www.ncmedicaljournal.com/content/79/2/124)
State of Child Poverty 2021 – ButtleUK (https://buttleuk.org/news/news-list/state-of-child-poverty-2021/)
How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime Nadine Burke Harris (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&ab_channel=TED)


 

Every fostering & adoptive family deserves a community of welcome in their church


Father and Child
 
They say it takes a village to raise a child.  At Home for Good we’ve stretched the saying to “It takes a church to raise a care experienced child”
 
When a family in your church become foster carers or adopters, they will need you, their church family, to wrap around them and create a great web of support, encouragement and perhaps the occasional Victoria sponge or curry delivery!
 
Here are some things that you can do which will really make a difference:
  1. Pray
For them, their social workers, the 100s of children in the UK waiting to be adopted.  Keep it high in your eyeline as a church.  Try to keep that command in Psalm 82 to “Defend the weak and the fatherless;  uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy;  deliver them from the hand of the wicked. 
  1. Be a friend who listens
Let them know that you care.  Sit with them in church even if their child is screaming – help the rest of the church family to accept the behaviour as trauma informed not naughty by modelling complete acceptance.  Invite them to dinner, all of them, fostering can be lonely.  Listen, but don’t expect all the information about the child in their care – some things need to remain confidential.
  1. Think creatively about practical support

Sometimes the most obvious support, like babysitting or helping at bath or bedtime, isn’t appropriate or allowed when children are being looked after or have recently been adopted – but there are still many ways you can help! Cook a meal for the family, offer to take away some ironing or clean the house when the family is out, or perhaps you could cut the lawn or the hedge, or even walk the dog for them.
  1. Become a champion for Home for Good in your church

We’re looking for individuals who are passionate about fostering and adoption to be our champions. You will be at the heart of all we do – raising awareness in your church and supporting the vision of Home for Good. Contact me for me more information.
  1.  Make sure your church is safe and secure for vulnerable children
As well as being kind, accepting and welcoming, it is important that your church is prepared with the right safeguarding practices and child protection policies in place. Encourage your church family to do some learning through reading the Home for Good book or taking part in some training.

     6.  Be willing to adapt and change
 
Children who have been looked after will often have suffered trauma, they may have experienced abuse or neglect, and they are usually having to cope in new and scary situations – and their foster carers and adoptive parents are doing all they can to love, nurture and support them. Be flexible and ready to adjust.  What is more important at the end of a Sunday school or youth group session: that children know the intimate details of a Bible passage or that they are loved and accepted by both God and you?

     7. Never, ever, ever give up
 
Foster carers are committed to their children and will faithfully love them even when it is hard. If you can journey with them and support them every step of the way, you will be playing a vital role in providing stability and security, and echoing God’s heart of love, compassion and mercy for these vulnerable children.
 
Written by Clare Walker, South West Regional Lead for Home for Good. clare.walker@homeforgood.org.uk 
 
Home for Good is a UK charity seeking to inspire and equip individuals and families to open their homes to vulnerable children. We resource churches to be a welcoming and supportive community for fostering and adoptive families, and advocate for vulnerable children at all levels of government.
 
 

Parenting Apart

Dad and Boy

I have a friend who often comments that one of the most vulnerable times in our lives is when we divorce...but often, for many reasons, this is when churches step away from families. Why is this? Theological objections? Awkwardness? Fear?  Whatever the reasons divorce is when families need us most and so I trust that the following insights give confidence to be able to navigate this complex time with families compassionately and helpfully.

The first thing to absorb is that divorce leaves an emotionally chaotic wave of pain for a long time. When working with parents who are going through divorce I try to prepare them for at least 18 months of self-focussed and painful thinking; they may have suffered deep rejection, loss of their home, even access to their children. As a church leader it’s no use you asking them to put their children first or be a place of stability, they are very unlikely to be able to think that clearly for some time. It will come, however unlikely it may look at first (and they will find it deeply comforting to find out that there is life after divorce) but it won't happen straight away. I volunteer for a brilliant charity called Restored Lives that works with people who are leaving or have been left and who gently take them through some of the hard decisions...relational, financial, parental that they are going to have to negotiate. This is helpful because it means that some of the difficult truths of divorce can be handled by people expert in their delivery...and it’s brilliant for people going through divorce to meet others and share experiences and peer support each other, so introducing them to Restored Lives is a great first step.

Within my day job at Fegans the messages I give to divorcing parenting is rather like a poop sandwich (and I prepare them for this!!). Keep the poop part short...it’s not helpful to dwell on the damage caused to our own children but rather the hope we can leave behind.

Firstly the positive...well done for looking for support, good job on the courage to share, thank you for trusting me with such personal and painful experiences. Things are going to get better, the pain will ease, hope will return.

Secondly the poop. Divorce is a horrific shock to children as all of their attachment (how we all build our identity and relationship with others) is based on having a secure environment around them. When the person who has promised since your birth to "always be there for you" suddenly isn't anymore, it raises many insecurities that can manifest as anger, silence, petulance, blame....and even hate. In addition, houses, schools, routines all change. And however much we try to say it’s not the child's fault, they simply don't have the capacity to be able to believe this. And so they think it is their fault. If only they have been more well behaved, didn't row or answer back maybe this would never have happened.

Then thirdly hope.  Here are 5 key strategies they can help to rebuild families.

  1. Attachment is rebuildable...but it takes time. one to one, undivided by phone or internet (on the parents behalf!).  Quality, consistent, daily, time. Not much...just 10 mins...but regularly.

  2. Speak well of your ex. This may be like sucking poison from a cess pit...but it’s amazing for the wellbeing of the children. It also means that the parent who speaks well of the other is the most trusted parent which is worth the pain. Check out this 2 minute video of why.

  3. Approval. Divorcing people have often lost any sense of self worth and therefore may struggle to praise their children....but it’s essential for them to know that you don't just love them...you like them, you like being with them, you admire them, their courage, their kindness, their care.

  4. Keep everything as stable as you can...house, routines, school, friends. Even if we want a fresh start...it’s often the last thing children need. Don't bring new partners into a volatile mix until things settle.

  5. Let the children be angry, sad, shout...it’s how they process. Better that they process in front of you than silently and alone...or even worse, in chat rooms.

Try to remind people you are talking with that parenting is a long game; it’s not about who is favourite today, but rather are you a part of your grandchildrens lives. And whatever children say to us now, in the heat of divorce, if we manage it well they will re-evaluate how we did as parents as they older. Just like you re-evaluated your parents when you become a parent.

If you need a little more guidance, Fegans has created a free animated video series aimed at separated families on how to navigate the complex waters ahead...sign up here.

Ian Soars is the CEO of Fegans – a charity providing counselling to children, in addition to parent support, intervention and training.

Supporting Children with Additional Needs in Church


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Think of a 7-year old autistic child who is overwhelmed when greeted by bright lights, a wall of noise, a crowded room and an overload of different smells. Or a 10-year-old with dyslexia who loves sung worship, but finds reading words on a screen impossible because of the background images. Or a 14-year-old who uses a wheelchair and feels left out when asked to “jump up and worship”.

Around 20 per cent of children and young people have long-term additional needs or disabilities of some kind. Many of them, along with their families, feel excluded from a wide range of social activities, including church. So how can we meet their needs?
 
It’s about providing a better way for that 7-year-old. Thinking about when, how and where they arrive, as well as looking at alternative lighting. It’s about providing a screen with plain backgrounds and appropriate text fonts for that 10-year-old, and anyone else who might need it. It’s about changing what we say to include everyone. Perhaps saying “We’re going to worship now, please remain seated or stand, as you prefer…” would make all the difference to that 14-year-old.
 
Inclusion doesn’t stop at wider doors, ramps and disabled loos. It’s about creating places of belonging and developing the faith of everyone.
 
Appoint an inclusion champion 

The most important strategy a church can put in place is to appoint someone who ‘owns’ inclusion. Someone who will look critically at the things the church does through the lived experiences of the children and families you reach. What is hard for them to access? What modifications could easily be made to improve things?
 
Ideally, this role would be held by someone with a lived experience of additional needs or disability, either in their own lives or as a carer, to ensure inclusion is done with and not to anyone being supported. Inclusion champions provide a primary point of contact for those with additional needs, but the rest of the team must also be involved.
 
Build support strategies

Understanding what support strategies are in place in other areas of children’s lives (for example at school or home) and bringing them into church activities offers ready-made ideas, as well as provid­ing consistency and continuity. Asking parents or carers how their child likes to be supported and helped, and what they enjoy doing, is likely to unlock useful and helpful conversations. Remember to ask children themselves about how they like to be supported. Inclusion should always involve the person being included.
 
You could make one-page profiles to help parents or carers and young people describe themselves. You could also use a visual timetable using symbols or photos. This is a great tool to help children understand where they are in the programme, what is expect­ed of them, and what is coming next (including when ‘snack time’ is!).

“Inclusion should always involve the person being included”
 
Recruit one-to-one support

Some young people with additional needs can become anxious if they are left to cope on their own. Providing one-to-one support can help them understand what is happening and what they are supposed to be doing.
 
People who may not see themselves leading children’s talks, songs or games may be happy to sit with and support a child. Seek people who are caring, empathic and nurturing. The grandpar­ent generation can often be great at this. Sometimes other young people can fulfil this role as ‘buddies’, getting alongside their peers or younger children and supporting them (with suitable super­vision). Ideally, this role should not be filled by parents or carers. They need to be spiritually fed themselves in church!

Sensory support
Sensory overload can be a common issue for children with a range of additional needs, so providing ways for them to manage and regulate this is essential. A sensory calm room or zone with calming lighting, relaxing sounds, beanbags and safe things for children to engage with and help them relax will be useful.
 
If this isn’t possible, a pair of ear defenders can make all the difference between someone enjoying the programme and being in physical pain because of the noise. Another useful addi­tion is a ‘fiddles’ box, which contains items that can be, squeezed, clicked or simply fiddled with. The sensory support this provides can aid focus and concentration.

Creative learning
We learn best when our learning is fun, engages us in activities we enjoy and meets our preferred learning style: watch­ing, listening or, in most cases, doing. It’s no different for young people with addi­tional needs. If they enjoy jigsaws or Lego, get them to build a jigsaw or Lego model of the theme you’re exploring. Did you know there is a (Lego) Brick Bible? You could also encourage them to build Bible scenes online in Minecraft.
 
Getting inclusion right makes our church a place of belonging for everyone; a place where people are missed for all the right reasons if they can’t come. There is plenty of support available, so you don’t have to do this on your own. To access training and other services, visit the ‘partners’ section of the Additional Needs Alliance website or join its Face­book group. Take the first step on your inclusion journey today, in prayer.
 
Shalom,

Mark Arnold


Mark Arnold (The Additional Needs Blogfather) is the Additional Needs Ministry Director for Urban Saints’, Co-Founder of the ‘Additional Needs Alliance’, contributor to a range of publications, and dad to James a 17 year-old Autistic, with Epilepsy and Learning Disability.  
 

Protecting Women and Children from Domestic Abuse


Restored

The Covid-19 lockdown has seen an unprecedented rise in domestic abuse across the world. The NSPCC have reported that contacts to their helpline about the impact of domestic abuse on children have surged by almost a third since the start of the lockdown, to an average of one an hour.

In the UK, national domestic abuse charity Refuge, which provides specialist support for women and children experiencing domestic violence, has noted that in the early stages of the lockdown, traffic to its website rose by 150 per cent and there was an average 25 per cent increase in calls to its national domestic abuse helpline.
 
Restored, a Christian charity that aims to end violence against women, has put together lockdown resources for victims of abuse, church leaders and men. 
 
Supporting victims and survivors
Isolation is a tool that perpetrators already know how to use as a tactic to gain control. The lockdown can, therefore, appear to legitimise isolation and perpetrators will use it as a cover for abuse.
 
The police can help. If you are being abused call 999 and press 55; the police will recognise you may not be able to talk but can give you instructions.  An alternative is Refuge’s national domestic abuse helpline, 08082000247. The charity can help you find specialist services, from a refuge to a lawyer, which you can find out more about on our website, at any time of day or night.
 
Our resources also provide more information on how to make you and your children safe. Children may not be the ones experiencing abuse, but getting to safety will be beneficial for both you and you children, who may be experiencing depression, self-harm or eating disorders.
 
Supporting church leaders
Domestic abuse is hard to see. Many women do not think they are being abused and perpetrators are good at hiding it. But there are signs you can train yourself to look for.
 
Restored’s Church Pack is a starting point to help you understand abuse, and our Covid-19 toolkit will help you apply this to lockdown.  We have also arranged a weekly series of one-hour training sessions via video link. Email info@restoredrelationships.org to book a free place. Visit Teatime Talks for more information.
 
Supporting men
Prolonged periods in isolation and working from home will generate feelings of restriction and make nerves fray. These are not an excuse to take things out on others and find a scapegoat in your partner. These are times to take control, own your feelings and find ways of distressing. Our leaflet for men will give you practical advice on doing this. 
 
For more information contact the Restored team at info@restoredrelationships.org