Postcards From the Margins: Childhood Trauma’s Legacies

A recent Facebook discussion had me ranting about the almighty football machine and how we have all just seen a child (how many children?) eaten by it. My despair about issues of violence with children is nearly incapacitating. However, a fellow Facebook-er challenged me to address the broader issue of how we are to best protect the children in our communities from ongoing abuse.

Challenge accepted.

Let’s start here: The ACE Study and the actual questionnaire used to assess ACE’s–adverse childhood experiences.

The idea: Researchers compiled a list of questions about ACE’s–adverse childhood experiences. They gave the questionnaire to 17,000 people over the course of a few years. People were asked to
…”relate their personal childhood histories in in ten different categories of adverse childhood experiences, including physical and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and various measures of household dysfunction, such as having divorced or separated parents or family members who were incarcerated or mentally ill or addicted.”
(Source:  How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough, 2012, Mariner Books)

What they found: A quarter of the people reported they had been beaten as a child. Two thirds of the people (2/3 of 17,000 people) experienced one ACE. More than 1 in 8 experienced 4 or more ACE’s.

What blew everybody away: Besides the high incidence of childhood trauma? This: the correlation between ACE’s and negative adult outcomes. It turns out there is a near-linear relationship between ACE and every measure of adult negative outcome, from addictive behaviors to chronic disease. Whereas researchers might have predicted poor outcomes in terms of things like depression or early sexual activity, or maybe even in diseases like obesity, or lung cancer, in fact even among those who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink too much, and weren’t obese, people with an ACE score higher than seven had almost 4X the likelihood of developing ischemic heart disease.

The mechanism: stress. Or not so much stress as the body and brain’s reaction to it. One way the body responds to chronic stress is heart disease. One way the brain responds to chronic stress is that kids simply can’t think straight. Executive brain function, what we know as higher order mental abilities (the ability to deal with confusion, e.g., or unpredictable situations) gets worse as your ACE score goes up. High ACE = less ability to concentrate, remember, and control impulses.

HERE  is a great power point presentation about stress and early childhood development.

So: Out of  10 questions, the introduction to which is, “When you were growing up, during the 1st 18 years of your life:”,  3 of these questions–3 out of 10–are below:

1. Did a parent or other adult in your household often or very often
Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?
Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

2. Did a parent or other adult in your household often or very often…
Push, grab slap, or throw something at you?
hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?

7.  Was your mother or stepmother:
Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her?
Sometimes, often, or very often 
kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard?
repeatedly hit at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or a knife?

3 of 10 have to do with what we’ve seen in the last week.

This is something constructive we can all do: Get the word out. If you want your kid to have the best chance of making it in the world, if what you want is to maximize their physical and psychological and cognitive health and abilities, you can’t hit them or their mothers. EVER.

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