As mamas, it's easy to forget our own needs and ignore our stress levels, especially if we grew up in households where stress was common.
Of course, we want to put our kids first to make sure they have as stress-free a childhood as possible, but research suggests that practicing self-care and knowing when to ask for help is vital to ensuring our kids inherit our smiles, but not our stressors.
A 2018 study published in Pediatrics found that children whose parents experienced adverse childhood experiences—such as suffering abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic violence or watching parents go through a divorce—were at a higher risk for developmental delays. Adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs, can have long-lasting negative effects on a person's mental and physical health, and mamas who've gone through them can benefit from therapy and other supports to ensure their kids don't.
Parental ACE exposures can lead to developmental delays
For the study, researchers followed babies from 2 months old through 2 years old and analyzed the ACE exposures of more than 530 mothers and fathers. And what they discovered is that for each additional ACE mothers endured, children were 18% more likely to have suspected delays; when it came to fathers, that risk jumped to 34%.
What's more: Kids whose mothers suffered at least three ACEs in childhood were far more likely to have several developmental issues, according to the study's findings.
Study leader Alonzo Folger, an assistant professor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Centers, tells Reuters that delays can restrict school readiness and emotional health, adding, “Childhood exposure to abuse, neglect and other forms of household dysfunction can have psychobiological effects that are toxic to the brain during sensitive time points of development."
Another study, also published in Pediatrics, looked specifically at the effect of a mother's childhood exposure to toxic stress, as well as health issues during pregnancy on infant development. A team of Canadian researchers studied more than 1,900 mothers and their babies and found that maternal ACEs contributed to about 12% of infants' delays in communication, problem-solving, motor skills and social skills by 1 year old.
But a mother's exposure to childhood trauma and stress doesn't only impact whether or not her child will reach their developmental milestones on time. A third study published in Pediatrics revealed that parents exposed to ACEs were less resilient and had a harder time coping with and caring for sick children.
Taking care of ourselves helps us protect our children
Just because a parent has a high ACE score themselves doesn't automatically mean their child will, or that their child will experience developmental delays.
“The effect of a stable, nurturing relationship for a child is incredibly important to mitigating the effects of adversity, or ACEs," lead author Anita Shah, a clinical fellow at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, tells Reuters. “For a parent with high ACEs, this may mean reaching out to someone to help them learn how to cope with daily stressors as well as making sure their children can find ways to cope with toxic stressors."
As parents, we want to believe that we are superheroes who can get everything done without hiccups. But we all know the truth is that we can't. We need help, and we shouldn't feel ashamed to ask for it. Even if it's hard to admit you're struggling, it's worth it. You deserve to be cared for in the same way you take care of everyone else.
Reach out for help
We all have flaws. We all have bad days. We all have stress and trauma that we're still working through to this day. So be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself when you don't like how you handled something, and think about the ways you can improve next time. On the other hand, realize when you're being too hard on yourself.
“We don't need to play the shame game. It doesn't help," pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris writes in her book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. “If you're someone with an ACE score of your own, learning to recognize when your stress response is getting out of whack can be hard. Taking the time and finding the resources to do self-care and get yourself on the path to healing can be even harder."
It's difficult—but it's so worth it. Dr. Burke Harris believes that parents have the power to rewrite the story of adversity and break the intergenerational cycle of toxic stress. Parents who lived through adverse childhood experiences know that toxic stress in childhood can have a lasting effect, but when we take care of ourselves now, we're making sure our children have a different kind of childhood.
A version of this post was originally published on March 27, 2018. It has been updated.