The importance of understanding childhood trauma


Imagine a 5-year-old girl sitting in a chair watching her Mom walk out the door of her family’s life, while her Dad paced the floor in tears. She was a little girl who didn't know what to do, except offer her distraught father a tissue to dry his tear-filled eyes. Such a life-changing event is one that can become a defining childhood trauma and subconsciously impact a child's life.  I know, because I was that child, and understanding the dynamics of childhood trauma and how it can affect lives, including the relationship with our wounded self, is a topic of deep personal interest to me. 

As I researched this topic, I found that one of the greatest challenges in grasping mental health is to understand the timing of biological and environmental risk factors and how they cause positive or negative outcomes for children and adolescents, perhaps even leading into adulthood.

I also discovered an overwhelming amount of data that supports how "unresolved adverse childhood experiences" can impact a child's rapidly developing brain, impair immune system responses and future quality of life. Research clearly suggests that when a child is exposed to chronic stressful events, their neurodevelopment can be disrupted. As a result, the child’s cognitive functioning or ability to cope with these emotions may be impaired.  Over time — often during adolescence — the child may adopt negative coping mechanisms, such as substance use or self-harm.

Such discoveries make me wonder why childhood trauma isn’t being addressed as a nationwide priority. Early childhood trauma must be addressed at the time of trauma, as this will support the child’s recovery and ability in developing a healthier adult life.

Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert, stated that “negative childhood experiences can set our brains to constantly feel danger and fear,” making it difficult for a trauma survivor to trust or feel safe. Examples of childhood trauma include abuse or neglect, domestic violence, a parent’s substance abuse, mental illness or imprisonment, as well as parental death, separation or divorce.

The results of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study suggest that billions of dollars are spent everywhere except on the “solution.”  The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences and their long-term effects are clearly a major determinant of the health and social well-being of the nation. This is true whether looked at from the standpoint of social costs, the economics of health care, the quality of human existence, the focus of medical treatment, or the effects of public policy. 

The ACE Study demonstrates that if children are protected and nurtured, serious and prevalent health and social problems will be significantly reduced, and I, for one, emphatically agree! We must become proactive in creating trauma awareness, as well as accessible and affordable mental health services for our children. Their quality of life depends on it. After all, prevention is key, and recovery is absolutely possible.