ACEs, Adverse Community Environments, School Nursing, Self Care, Social Determinants of Health, Trauma-Responsive Care

The Relentless School Nurse: Cissy White Shares Parenting after ACEs – Small Changes & Huge Differences

 is a brilliant writer and speaker. She is a national leader in the ACEs movement and an expert on parenting with high ACEs. Cissy is adamant that the voice and lived expertise of survivors must be heard and honored through inclusion in decision making and policy development. As Cissy says, “it is not trauma-informed if it’s not informed by trauma survivors.”  

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Cissy White – Heal Write Now

I didn’t know how well a cry could be soothed, warmed, tended.

I didn’t know how satisfying it would feel to cuddle, coddle, and cradle my baby girl. She was so tiny, only 10 pounds though ten months, because of living in an orphanage without enough food or love.

I was overwhelmed by the love pouring out of me in endless supply. I had not anticipated the sea of love that would swim from my being.

I found that lifting my daughter, rocking her, holding her hand, looking at her, taking her up and in and swaddling her and sometimes even pointing in a new direction or giving her a cheerio or something to see or touch could help.

I learned that changing what she saw what she looked out on what she felt was possible and powerful.

Why trauma therapy doesn’t start with attachment, the understanding of how basic, essential, and beautiful primary bonds are supposed to be – is beyond me.

I saw that just moving the seat she was in, turning the page of the book we were reading, replacing the texture of a sock or shirt or food could make a world of difference. I learned that changing things could change things, and sometimes, small changes made a huge difference.

Does this sound obvious? It wasn’t. It was wonderfully perplexing.

I didn’t seem to have this power when it came to myself, which is not the presence of trauma but the absence of attachment.

My ex-boyfriend used to say the red-flag, for him, about me was how self-sacrificing I was. The first time he told me that I actually blushed, like it was a compliment. “I”m a champ at ignoring my needs. There’s almost no bodily impulse I can’t shut down or override,” I said.

I can work with migraines, asthma, a concussion. Shingles, for me, wasn’t as bad as the flea infestations I’d had as kids. I thought the flu-like feeling I got when the shingles started was me just being a baby with AC conditioning.

But my ex was not admiring my “skills,” or “abilities,” which I honestly thought were strengths at the time. He was seeing something I didn’t yet know was a flaw – I sucked at taking care of myself. I thought my ability to ignore myself was super-human. The truth is, I didn’t know how to be human enough.

Even as I mothered and discovered mother-love, I still didn’t understand how well to mother myself.

I just knew that what I was helping my daughter with made her become someone who did learn how to tend to herself in ways she just does without thought. Unlike me she doesn’t use sticky notes to remind herself to go pee, drink more water, eat when hungry, sleep when tired, stand up and stretch. She listens to her body. It communicates with her. It signals and she responds.

I wonder if others know these things are learned?

I wonder if others think of them as I do now, as another type of list of ACEs.

Advantaged Childhood Experiences

  1. Being attended to physically
  2. Being responded to emotionally
  3. Being protected from physical, emotional, or sexual violence.
  4. Having good enough parents present and free from incarceration
  5. Having enough stability
  6. Having enough food
  7. Having the luxury of being prioritized over a caretaker’s addiction
  8. Having the luxury of being prioritized over a caretaker’s mental illness
  9. Not having a parent who beats or violates their partner, especially in your presence
  10. Having a school, neighborhood, and community that’s safe

There are others we could “expand” upon. Having a place to live. Being free from bullying. Being middle-class, privileged (i.e. free from discrimination).

Imagine if we showed the dose-response curve of those with the most advantaged childhood experiences, who were at-benefit, lived longest, and are more free of disease?

Imagine if we made the resiliency-building practices and campaigns focused on insuring that most families get most advantages as often as possible and by any means necessary?

I didn’t know what attachment, attuning, attending to my kid could do. Had I not become a parent, through adoption, I might have never learned about attachment-based and therapeutic parenting. I wouldn’t have learned, “love isn’t enough” unless one feels safe. I wouldn’t have met the kick-ass adoptive parents who are the backbone of the trauma-informed movement. They have, for decades, un-apologetically advocated for their kids and helped change schools, medical practices, and social systems in order that they work better for their kids rather than accepting piss-poor or discriminatory treatment of their kids. I think they do this for several reasons and because they have some advantages.

  1. They often have some access to resources as people who are often (not always) white, middle-class, and older.
  2. They have far less shame about the traumatic stress and issues their kids have as they often don’t feel responsible for them as they often (though not always) are a result of adversity and loss that happened before their kids were placed with them.

Adoptive parents are who I try to emulate when dreaming that someday all survivors of trauma will be as bold, assertive, and clear about our needs, offer family to family support while we mobilize to change systems.

I haven’t been perfect but I have been able to witness things in my daughter and other kids who have more buffering and security than traumatic loss and toxic stress.

They don’t seem to sweat or freak when lost. They don’t panic when they have a question or need help. They reach out rather than withdraw when in pain or crisis and expect humans will want and chose to be there. They don’t feel shame when trying to figure something out. They don’t implode when she makes a mistake.

Unlike me, my kid doesn’t grab her keys an hour before she has to leave the house and then lose them again a few times before getting to her car. She stalks joy the way I stalk danger. She swings on the hammock when I fret, and fret, and fret. She doesn’t say, “I’m sorry,” before or after or in the middle of sentences.

She expects decent treatment. It’s the type of entitled I wish all human beings could be. Is it luck, privilege, or advantage? I don’t know. I do know it’s learned though, and in context. I don’t just mean in one-on-one parent love either, though that is key. It’s also there (or not) for each of us because of how we met in the wider world. Are we welcome? Are we cherished? Are we wanted? Are we treated as a bother? A nuisance? A problem?

Why didn’t anyone tell me how strong the pull to comfort would be? Why didn’t anyone tell me how miraculous it is to witness calm come over an uncomfortable baby who had seemed inconsolable or how magnificent it is to be the thing that can help provide relief.

That was the true superpower I’d never known. I actually feel bad for the father who abandoned me because he didn’t get to have, know, or receive the type of love when it gets returned from one’s own kid. He wasn’t safe enough in himself or with others to give or get that. He wasn’t healed or well enough to be trusted to be loving with my mother, me, or my sister, the people he loved.

It was astounding to see how my daughter could go from fury to joy, from hungry to fed, from wet to dry, and it could take only seconds or minutes. I felt magical.

How could she turn from bored to blissed-out so quickly or go from moving 100 miles a minute to being fast asleep on my chest?

I couldn’t manage that magic for myself but to see her with a foundation that was solid enough for her to build on and flexible enough for her to bounce from as well. It still seems miraculous to me. Sometimes, I worry that she is entitled because she doesn’t live, 24/7 courting a world of dangerous, what-if catastrophes.

I know we are supposed to be whole before we parent, and for the sake of my kid, I wish I had been. Her ACE score isn’t zero and both her father and I found recovery as we parented and were not good-to-go beforehand which she deserved.

I know that there are things I only learned about love as a parent.

  • That children are utterly blameless.
  • That children can’t cause or control the behavior of adults.
  • That children may feel ancient and old but are always young.
  • That infants have primal needs for security and love that can be nurtured or harmed, or both.

I didn’t know them before.

Being a mother who felt filled with love, who could be human and loving at the same time was an entirely new way of being in the world. I learned that needs didn’t only need to be tamed, removed, silenced, or stopped. Needs weren’t threats, and even if buttons were pushed, that didn’t have to mean the nuclear option. There were ways to interrupt, to recover, to apologize, to learn, change, and make amends and repairs.

That thing called unconditional love is astonishing to grow and give.

Some people learn early how to be responded to. Some people learn how cries are cues that evoke something more than rage or violence. Some people have their cries soothed, calmed, and mirrored. Some people learn how to soothe, calm, and respond to others as well. Not everyone is terrified of what their tears will provoke in others. Not everyone is freaked out by feelings.

Some people expect to be cared for and about no matter what their mood, distress, or behavior. Some people assume it without thinking the way one counts on air to breathe and live but is hardly every grateful.

What must that be like for them?

I hope they know it is not known, given, assumed or even understood by all. Maybe they can’t imagine what it’s like to live with lots of pain, trauma, pain, loss, stress, scarcity? I only know that when I learned of the original ACEs study I was shocked that 1 in 3 people have had no ACEs and 85% of people have had less than four. That still seems wrong and inaccurate to me. Who are these supposed ACE-free people?

I hope my kid will have a kid who can say, “It’s me.”

Til then I hope that I and other adults will keep learning. And I hope our movement grows more patient with adults like me who have to learn while doing on-the-job parenting even while knowing it’s not ideal.

Instead of judging us parents who struggle, why can’t we study how to be better at helping, supporting, and understanding survivors of trauma, parents with ACEs, instead of always studying exactly how trauma has damaged our brains and bodies?

It takes learning, skill, and practice to learn new ways of being in the world. It takes courage to give up ways of being that were life-saving and also are deeply ingrained habits.

The very things that kept us alive as children during abuse, neglect, or chaos – such as checking out, zoning out, numbing out, being compulsive about eating, studying, almost anything, is miraculous and amazing and adaptive.

How I learned how to sleep in my own urine so I could rest even if cold, smelly, or wet kept me getting rest.

How I learned not to hold my breath and pretend others couldn’t smell me so I could go to school without evaporating in shame.

How I learned how to cover my eyes with my bangs and take off my glasses and pretend others couldn’t see me or notice the black electrical tape or paper clips were holding my glasses together. How pretending to be invisible kept me believing others didn’t notice my smell or stains or flaws.

How I learned to say, “Not hungry,” when really I didn’t have money enough to join in, to get presents on museum trips, to go bowling, or to join others getting fries at a restaurant.

I learned to use toilet paper and napkins and paper towels to keep from bleeding during that time of the month. I learned how to sit on my hands in class so as not to leave a bloodstain, how to wrap a sweatshirt around my waist to get me more time to get to a bathroom and this kept me in class. Being able to attend school at all, attending to my body was a triumph that took work, will, and skill.

I didn’t know that passing for healthy and happy wasn’t the actual end goal but that being happy and healthy better.

Everything about how I survived as a child in adversity is precisely the opposite of everything a good enough parent needs. I didn’t know that when I started parenting.

I wish someone had told me and encouraged me to learn new ways of being while honoring my survival.

The presence of absence was as familiar as the absence of presence.
To tune in, feel, notice, stay in my body, skin, and experiences would have been excruciating if not deadly to me as a kid.

How do I learn something new and different as an adult, as a parent, as teach it so well that my daughter finds loving and being human feel natural? That journey has been the work of my life, the highest priority healing, and I am not done.

I think people who have not ever lived in reactionary defensive are so much better at seeing the world as a painting to be created rather than as a bullet to be dodged. They see the world as an outstretched hand rather than a punch they are ducking from.

How do we give up deeply ingrained ways of being that were life-saving and serving for years if not decades and also acquire a whole new set of skills we didn’t learn as kids? Often, our skills don’t match our will, and we don’t know why or how to bridge the gaps.

I wish I’d understood sooner more about what those without trouble have, know, learn, and count on as they grow because that’s what I needed to make life different for my daughter.

I’m now the mother of a teenager who is almost an adult. My baby can drive and navigate the outside world. She is the same age my mother was when she had become pregnant with her first child.

I’m astounded by the strength and confidence and grace of my daughter. I’m also reminded of how much stress and turmoil and trauma my mother was living with at her age and with far less financial, emotional, and other resources my kid has.

I wish I’d understood earlier that there is not one thing my mother had that she didn’t give or share and that it’s possible for someone to give the best they know how and it still not be what a child deserves and needs.

I have a high ACE score, and my mother managed to give and gift me with more than she ever had just as I hope to do for my daughter. May we replace our adversities with advantages and pass those down. – Cissy White


You Matter Mantras

  • Trauma sucks. You don’t.
  • Write to express not to impress.
  • It’s not trauma-informed if it’s not informed by trauma survivors.
  • Breathing isn’t optional.

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