The Month of April is Child Abuse Prevention Month in the USA, and so in April each year our Newsletter has a special focus on child and adolescent issues. This provides an opportunity to review what brings us all here in the first place. The field of complex trauma and dissociation is born in the realm of the lost child. It is the hurt, abused and neglected child that draws us all to the halls of the ISSTD. Whether we actually work with children or we work with adults who were hurt as children, the common thread of what we do is the child!
What we end up finding, as we gather as a group, is the vast amount of lost children we are talking about. It is hard, once you learn of the true nature of the problem and the real scope and scale of how many harmed and lost children there really are, to not be overwhelmed by the size of the project we dedicate our lives to. This is a huge hill to climb. It is also very challenging, once one learns about the effects that hard childhoods have on kids and how this translates into adulthood, to not buckle under the weight of this knowledge.
This knowledge, that dissociative disorders are born in harsh conditions, and such conditions seem pervasive. Adverse childhood experiences are extremely common. The inability for parents, caregivers, educators, legal entities and policy makers to understand a) what is an actual adverse experience and b) how to help a child deal with these experiences seems to be the crux of the problem. How do we continue to do what we do, so that we can transfer what we have learned to others, to ensure that no child is lost? How do we keep our own hearts, souls and minds healthy to hold this information, research it, search for more information to help further understand what is happening and how we can ultimately stop this extremely preventable mental health issue?
Reflection on what we have accomplished can assist in providing answers, and hope, to these very complex and seemingly insurmountable problems. During my time in this field we have learned so much. We have been able to study Attachment theory, the Polyvagal theory, neurobiology and neuroimaging, large meta studies, and a plethora of qualitative information, and these, along with the ACE studies, all provide a vast amount of information that supports the finding that children are very sensitive to stress.
We have learned what infants and children need to flourish and what happens if these needs are not met. We have learned that children are a lot more affected by their environments than adults. We have learned that not only the function of the mind is affected by childhood adverse experiences but also the structure of the brain itself. We know that when infants and children are exposed to abuse, chaotic homes, neglect, harsh interpersonal connections, and other tumultuous environments that they do not do well at all. We have learned that children are very sensitive to the presence, and conversely, absence of the caregivers. We have learned that children who are raised in adversity are very likely to bring these adverse experiences into their adulthood. We have learned that there is a connection between the occurrence of childhood trauma and how those survivors conduct themselves in adulthood.
For example, people have been re-visiting the findings of the well-known “marshmallow experiment”. It was noticed that in the pre-screening of child-subjects, there was no consideration for lack or poverty. Once lack or poverty are accounted for the results are very different and can be interpreted differently. When a person is lacking in basic needs, those needs will be a predominate concern for the person, such as with the marshmallow. The children who have been provided with less, have way less belief that their needs will be met, so they eat the marshmallow. The children who learned that there is plenty, are more able to wait, so they can prolong the eating of the marshmallow. The children who have learned that there is no predictability in getting anything, take it as soon as they can.
We have learned that there are reasonable explanations for a majority of human reactions and behaviours, if the adverse experience is accounted for. If it not accounted for, then there is a whole host of information that is missing. We can connect a lot of dots because of what we have learned about the effects that childhood trauma has on people. We can show connection between childhood adversity and how polices are developed. How election choices are made. What the adverse experience will have on future medical concerns and outcomes. We understand that many legal concerns are all influenced and effected by people who were hurt as children. We know that what happened to people as children alters their whole world view. I think the most influential information of all is that humans thrive on love. We thrive on feeling safe and need to have security in our family units. We have also learned that care for the wounds, caring for the hurts, caring for the pain, honouring the suffering are some of the most powerful sources of healing.
From a variety of sources we are learning that care, attention, softness and dignity to the suffering of the children or adult survivours mend these wounds. As we move into the next decade my wish is that the needs of our young are put at the forefront of all policies. For this to occur the need to educate almost every facet of our social, educational, health and government branches of society will benefit from knowing what we know. We are the leaders in this aspect. It is my hope that as leaders we can take our brutal but beautiful knowledge and continue to help change how we treat children.