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Adverse Childhood Experiences: Protective Factors

Parents and caregivers make a significant difference in the lives of their children. By raising them in a loving, positive home, they can put them on the path to a happy, healthy life. Adults also have a crucial role in protecting kids from unhealthy experiences.

Studies show that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as verbal abuse or substance abuse by parents, can stop a child’s healthy development. ACEs can lead to “toxic stress”—or highly stressful situations —for kids. Too much toxic stress for a child can lead to health problems from childhood and teen years into adulthood.

The early years of a child’s development are critical. Children need safe and encouraging relationships and homes to succeed and grow.


What Are Protective Factors?

Studies show that an important way to prevent ACEs and toxic stress is to build “protective factors” in children. Protective factors are like a shield to protect kids from ACEs and build resilience. They are things like:

  • Loving, supportive parents
  • Parents who read and talk to their kids
  • Healthy relationships with parents, family members and friends
  • Learning good communication skills

If there are no protective factors for a child, toxic stress can affect brain development.

The most important protective factor is a caring, loving relationship with parents or caregivers.

One of the goals for parents is to load their “child’s scale” with positive factors. That will help them build resilience to deal with negative things that can occur.


Building Protective Factors

Here are some key ways parents can help build protective factors:

  • Have as many healthy, positive experiences as possible for your child.
  • Always be there for your child when they need support and encouragement.
  • Spend time with your child. Let the child know he or she is loved and has a purpose in life.
  • Let them know who they can count on if bad things happen.
  • Shield your child from toxic stress by working to prevent negative experiences.
  • Children learn from their parents’ behavior. If you handle times of stress by being positive and confident, your child will notice and learn from it. It’s one of the most important ways to build resilience in children.


Take Care of Yourself

Here are things you can do to take care of yourself and show your child how to cope with stress:

  • Tap into support systems. Connect with mental health and/or substance abuse treatment when needed.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Get enough sleep and physical activity.
  • Stay positive. It will help your mental outlook and physical well-being.


Keep It Positive

Load up on positive, healthy experiences to build resilience in kids:

  • Use "serve and return" activities with children, such as reading, rhymes, singing and talking.
  • Have stable, healthy relationships with relatives and friends.
  • Learn good communication skills. Recognize and understand the feelings of others.
  • Learn why and how to make good choices.
  • Have safe, supportive and positive learning environments.


Ways to Deal with Stress

Here are some ways you can help your child deal with stressful situations or situations that could become stressful:

  • Teach children how to deal with and respond to aggressive behavior and how not to be a victim. Get warning signs of bullying and learn how to take action.
  • Set rules and limits. Children want and need you to teach them what is allowed.
  • Listen to your child’s needs and fears. You may need to adjust daily activities to help them through a rough period.
  • Always give your child support and encouragement. Let your child know that you and other supportive adults are always available.


Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

Think about how ACEs affect you and your role as a parent. If ACEs are causing problems in your home, talk to family members, trusted friends or a professional. Your pediatrician or healthcare provider can review your situation and recommend resources.


Additional Resources

The Tennessee Parent Helpline is a 24/7, toll-free number for families experiencing problems, or if parents just need to talk to someone. Call 800-CHILDREN or 800-356-6767.

Find out how loving words boost brain development in babies.

Learn how ACEs can lead to risky behaviors like substance abuse.

See more steps parents can take to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Learn more about ACEs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

ACEs Science refers to research on the effects of ACES and what can be done to prevent them.

See a report about the impact ACEs have on brain development by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Protecting Your Child and Building Resiliency:


It’s OK to Talk About Youth Mental Health: