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Toxic stress in children is a topic Montanans are beginning to hear more about.

Researchers have been discovering that children raised with certain traumas -- known as Adverse Childhood Experiences -- can suffer lifelong impacts.

Traumatic experiences such as neglect or emotional, physical or sexual abuse cause the child’s brain to flood with cortisol, a chemical the body releases as part of its fight-or-flight response when threatened.

When the brain floods with cortisol, it affects the biology of brain development.

One way to counter the impacts of toxic stress is fostering resilience in kids.

This was the main focus of a talk Thursday by keynote speaker, author and pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg at a two-day ChildWise Institute conference opening Thursday morning at the Best Western Great Northern Hotel.

“The most protective things in anyone’s life are unconditional love and high expectations,” said Ginsburg, whose specialty is adolescent medicine.

“The fundamental question of adolescence is -- who am I?” he said. “They are looking for their identity.

“If adolescents are seen as dangerous or thoughtless, then adolescents become that. If we see them as idealistic and caring and committed, they rise to those expectations.”

“When kids have an adult who really, really sees them and holds them to that sense of morality and high expectation, kids rise,” he said.

“Lift people up, recognize what they bring to the table -- their compassion, their sensitivity.”

The negative behaviors kids develop have a cause, he said. And a behavior, such as smoking marijuana, may feel good to them, which is why they do it. They are not yet at a stage where they are aware of consequences. Nor can they hear an adult who lectures them about it.

Adolescents are capable of healing, Ginsburg advised the crowd of 350 attendees. “Don’t give up on them.”

He also emphasized not treat these kids like they are damaged. Rather than “fixing” them or lecturing them, listen to them.

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In their pain and emotionality is also their strength.

Ginsburg has spent more than two decades assisting youth in developing their own solutions to problems. An award-winning researcher, he also directs Covenant House in Philadelphia, which serves runaway, homeless and trafficked youth.

What are some common mistakes parents make with youth?

People forget that “parenting begins with breastfeeding,” he said. “It’s giving kids nurturance. Giving kids a sense they can rely on somebody. Giving kids a sense they are really valued and cherished by another human being.” It’s not only celebrating kids, it’s also reading to kids and spending time with kids.

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“It doesn’t stop with adolescence," he said. “Adolescents crave the very same attention that children do.”

As kids grow older, parents tend to spend more time correcting kids rather than just being with their kids.

“We are role models for kids. Be ... the kind of person you want to see reflected in your child’s eyes.”

While the first part of Ginsburg’s talk focused more on the science of trauma, the second part was sharing insights on helping kids to build their strengths and resilience.

Some of the kids most at risk of facing ACE stresses, he said, are those who are black, brown, American Indian or gay, because of the structural racism in U.S. society, poverty and homophobia.

Not only is there a societal cost for the emotional damage ACE stresses cause on children, but there is growing scientific evidence of the physical health impacts this stress has on people as they grow older, such as hypertension, obesity and diabetes.

Another aspect researchers are looking into is the impact ACE stresses have on multiple generations of a family because of how stress influences which genes are turned on and expressed.

The ChildWise conference opened with the screening of the documentary film, “Resilience,” by award-winning filmmaker James Redford and Karen Pritzker. The film highlights successful early childhood programs and family supports that protect children from toxic stress.

A Helena chapter of Elevate Montana is working to get more Helena people involved in ACE awareness. It’s holding a Community Cafe meeting at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 27 at St. Paul United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall. For more information, call Trina Filan at United Way, 442-4360.

For more information about ChildWise visit childwise.org.

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Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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