Stories of neglect and abuse are tragically common. When the abuse ends, ramifications can, and often do, continue well into adulthood.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study in the 1990s called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs). Researchers found that in high doses, childhood trauma can significantly impact the child’s long-term health and wellness.
These are not your everyday disappointments, but experiences so traumatic that they can change the child’s physiology, such as severe neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse or a highly dysfunctional home.
The study looked at 17,000 cases and gave each participant one point for each traumatic childhood experience. The higher the score, they found, the worse the health outcome.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is a pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness in California. To explain the effects of repeated trauma on children, Harris uses the example of encountering a bear in the forest. The nervous system stimulates the adrenal gland, triggering the release of stress hormones and fight or flight response. When that “bear” comes home every night, kids experience continual fight or flight responses and these high doses of stress hormones result in a toxic response that can damage the developing body.
Science reveals there is something the rest of us can do: be a caring, dependable adult in a vulnerable child’s life.
“As humans, we are able to biologically buffer each others stress responses,” Harris said. “With safe, stable and nurturing environments – biologically what’s happening is that those adults are becoming a buffer for the stress response.
“We are understanding more than before, the scope and scale of the impact of these relationships. You can protect against a whole series of long term adverse outcomes,” Harris said.
Becoming a caring foster parent, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a mentor, a teacher or a coach are the kinds of roles that can make dramatic differences for these kids.
“ACEs do not have to be a sentence for our kids. If we can get enough people to do their little part, eventually you put all these things together as an ecosystem of support for kids,” Harris said.
So get that new gym membership, eat healthier and find a way to invest your heart and time in one child in need. You will quite literally change, and maybe save a life.
This is an excerpt of an article in the Sacramento Bee by Ashley Snee Giovannettone, a CASA volunteer and board member of California Alliance of Caregivers, which promotes the well-being of children in foster care.
See Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ popular TED talk about ACES: