The adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) studies (Felitti et al, 1998) have exposed that our schools, our communities, our homes are barbed with the arrows of adversity and as a society we are haemorrhaging from our wounds – bleeding with symptoms like addiction, disaffection and dysregulation.
These studies have resonated with many of us because for so long, the wound of trauma has gone unrecognised.
We have not realised the extent of adverse events such as abuse, neglect and domestic violence prevalent in society at large – or understood the pervasive impact of our early experiences upon our physiology and our psychology.
When working with a child, we may never know the source of the original ‘arrow’ or adverse childhood event.
We may not even realise a trauma wound is there at all.
Often, all we see is the dysfunctional behaviour or symptoms that manifest in the child as a result; but if we are not trauma informed these symptoms may not be recognised as originating from an adverse childhood experience.
This hidden residue of trauma can be misconstrued or misinterpreted by adults around a young person.
The behaviours are frequently viewed through a myopic ‘behaviourist’ or ‘zero tolerant’ lens that only deals with the observable behaviours, rather than understood in the wider human context as a distorted communication of an underlying need – an emotional pain – that is hidden from view.
As adults, we need to be aware of what hidden emotional needs a child’s outward behaviour is communicating so that we can help a child to heal from their trauma, rather than simply trying to control or change their symptoms.
As a survivor of ACEs myself, I would urge all schools to remove the phrase ‘zero tolerance’ from their vocabulary and replace it with kinder, empathic and more humane language.
I would ask schools that purport to be ‘zero tolerant’ to consider what beliefs actually underpin this? Because from where I am standing, being intolerant of a child’s behaviour, also means being intolerant of a human being who is doing their best to survive abuse, neglect, violence, loss, conflict and confusion, and communicating this in the only way they know how.
If we are bleeding, then help us to heal. Do not hurt us even more.
Bruce Perry has said,
“Troubled children are in some kind of pain – and pain makes people irritable, anxious and aggressive. Only patient, loving, consistent care works: there are no short-term miracle cures.” (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006:244)
Joe Tucci uses the analogy of ‘whale-song’ to describe the growing chorus of trauma knowledge and understanding that is resounding in society at large (Tucci, 2018 cited in Cherry). This ‘whale-song’ represents the shared voice of adversity that echoes far beyond what divides and separates us.
When we resonate with another emotionally, we understand that adversity unites us all and we feel this deep within us as a source of empathy and compassion. This can then be communicated back through our language and the way we relate to each other, in order to build resilience to risk.
Our task is not only to focus on helping children and young people to develop resilience and to rise above the adversity they face, but also to take a more activist role in challenging and trying to change, or transform, the ways of thinking or acting that get in the way of young people rising above their adversity (Hart & Gagnon, 2014). In other words, as Angie Hart and Emily Gagnon have highlighted in their work, resilience over adversity is about beating the odds, but it is also about changing the odds for vulnerable young people (Hart et al., 2013).
The proponents of ‘Relational Activism’ Becca Dove and Tim Fisher also challenge us to take an activist role in the way we relate to each other.
They say: “At this time…, the simple act of being relational with each other can be seen as a form of protest in itself. Protest against inhumane treatment of people within services, protest against inhumane systems and policies that harm, protest against the polarized narratives playing out in political arenas, and resistance to any of those things becoming, or, remaining, accepted norms.” (Dove and Fisher, 2019)
As Bonnie Benard (2020) reiterates, “Ultimately, resiliency research provides a mandate for social change – it is a clarion call for creating these relationships and opportunities in all human systems throughout the lifespan.”
We must promote the importance of nurturing relationships that are at the heart of resilient human eco-systems, but we must also actively campaign against and challenge the ideological barriers that prevent these nurturing, relational approaches from taking root and being allowed to proliferate in schools – as well as society at large.
At the end of the day, our ACEs do not define us. Our trauma story is not our only story – and it is certainly not the end of my story. The dominant narrative needs always to be one of hope, strength and resilience.
Benard, B. The Foundations of the Resiliency Framework. https://www.resiliency.com/free-articles-resources/the-foundations-of-the-resiliency-framework/ Accessed 04.01.2020
Dove, B. & Fisher, T. (2019) The personal is the political: Relational activism and social justice. Transforming Society. https://www.transformingsociety.co.uk/2019/12/03/the-personal-is-the-political-relational-activism-and-social-justice/
Hart, A., Gagnon, E., Aumann, K. and Heaver, B. (2013) Uniting Resilience Research and Practice Development With Activism to Challenge Social Adversity. Resilience forum presentation by Hart and Gagnon.
Hart, A. and Gagnon, E. (2014) Uniting Resilience Research and Practice Development With Activism to Challenge Social Adversity. www.tinyurl.com/p9tv57f
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Valerie, E., Koss, M. and Marks, J. S. (1998) ‘Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study’, American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 14, 245–58.
Perry, B. and Szalavitz, M. (2006) The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook. New York: Basic Books.
Tucci, J (2018) cited in Cherry, L. (2018) Day Four – Childhood Trauma Conference. Cited on www.lisacherry.co.uk accessed 03.11.2019