December 6, 2011
Morning Musings: Childhood Trauma 101
By Janice Gruendel, Ph.D., M.Ed., Deputy Commissioner
Terry Nowakowski, DCF Region 6 Administrator
December 6 (Early a.m.) A news article last week talked about American military men and women returning home from the Middle East. It also talked about the role that trauma has and will continue to play in their lives. Sometimes the trauma is physical, and we all have seen pictures or know of service people who have actually lost limbs or suffered brain injury. At least as often, the trauma is psychological, and it will shape their behavior for years to come.
Many of us first began to learn about the consuming impact of trauma within the context of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, better known as PTSD, after the Viet Nam war. Sensational revelations about pastoral sex abuse and the stories of its survivors contributed next to our understanding of the powerful negative impact of trauma on the lives of children and youth. Penn State is only the latest in our slow and painful learning curve.
What about trauma in childhood?
A huge and important study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente has much to teach us about trauma, described in terms of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACE). Based on this study of 17,000 middle-income Kaiser members, we know that two out of three individuals experience as least one adverse event in childhood, and one in five (20%) experience five or more. Data from other research reveals that as many as one in three women and one in five men may have been sexually abused as children.
The ACE study also provides a hierarchy of traumatic events, ranked in terms of the deepness of their impact on development:
1. Recurrent physical abuse
2. Recurrent emotional abuse
3. Contact sexual abuse
4. Having an alcohol and/or drug abuser in the household
5. Having an incarcerated household member
6. Living with someone who is chronically depressed, mentally ill, institutionalized, or suicidal
7. Living with a mother who is treated violently
8. Having only one or no parents
9. Emotional or physical neglect.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur with children aged 0-6. Because infants' and young children's reactions may be different from older children's, and because they may not be able to verbalize their reactions to threatening or dangerous events, many people assume that “young age” protects children from the impact of traumatic experiences.
But that is simply not true.
Neuroscience research over the past decade has shown absolutely clearly that the chronic experience of events that flood the brain with certain “fight or flight” chemicals negatively impacts the architecture of children’s brains in the first years of life, causes developmental delays and learning problems in their early and middle years, and even impacts their long term health during adulthood.
Findings from the ACE study are sobering. The greater the number of adverse events in early childhood, the greater the likelihood of both short and longer term negative impacts. Even 50 years later, traumatic experiences can continue to affect the individual as the body transforms this “psychosocial experience” into organic disease, social malfunction, mental illness and substance abuse.
What does this mean for individual children and public policy?
If we want children to succeed in school, if we want to reduce the flow of individuals into the juvenile and adult criminal justice system, if we want to reduce long-term health care costs, we must address exposure to the traumatic events on the list we have shared with you.
We can do that in three ways.
First, families matter. The impact of trauma and toxic events can be mitigated in early childhood through a nurturing and richly interactive relationship with consistent and caring adults, usually children’s parents or extended families. Good parenting is a buffer against the impact of trauma and toxic stress. And it is a simple fact that all families need help at different times in their lives and the lives of their children, and some families need more help than others.
Second, timing is everything. We must identify individual and structural challenges to children’s development early in their lives, and early in events that threaten that development – and then we must move from FACT to ACT. It is not good enough to “get better” at delivering services at the back end of our systems and the later years in our lives. We need to stop the flow of traumatized, developmentally-challenged children into our human services and educational pipeline. THAT is what prevention really means.
Third, this is not rocket science. We need to use the knowledge and the information we already have to better invest this state’s vast resources. These resources are money, to be sure, but also the human and community assets that we sometimes fail to engage. As state agencies and as local communities, the children and families who experience and suffer from trauma are not invisible. We are not, however, good enough at organizing, sharing and using the information we already have to serve them better and, most important, to help them become resilient in the face of adversity and risk.
We can all do better. And, we must.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, online at -- www.nctsn.org
See especially the information on trauma in young children at -- www.nctsn.org/content/child-traumatic-stress-cts-introduction.
Harvard Center on the Developing Child, online at -- http://developingchild.harvard.edu/about/
If you are new to this resource, start on homepage and view the three short videos.
We All Need Somebody: Supporting Children, Families and the Workforce in Connecticut’s Family Foster Care System (a September 2011 DCF report). Click here. Look especially at the section on trauma and early childhood.
Content Last Modified on 12/6/2011 12:11:20 PM