Alleviating the Adverse Effects of Childhood Trauma


It’s often said that adversity builds character. But the impact of significant adversity walks a fine line, particularly among children. When children face hardships, such as the death of a loved one, violence in their household or even divorce, their growth and development can be disrupted.

Negative events, known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), have the power to influence early development, as well as cause long-term physical and mental health implications. And it’s more common than people think. The CDC estimates that two-thirds of people have experienced at least one ACE in their early years, and one out of five have experienced more than three. Those numbers are even higher in minorities and children in underprivileged areas that may be overexposed to stress-inducing intolerances, food insecurity or criminal violence. Such repeated exposure to damaging experiences can lead to the build up of toxic stress that can actually derail early neural development, leading to future health problems, including heart and liver disease, substance abuse and mental stability challenges.

Intervention and support of children experiencing adverse events is key. With proper support, we can help to alleviate the effects of childhood trauma and keep our children healthy for generations to come.

Providing Proper Support

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has found that a major item that separates tolerable stress from toxic stress is positive, supportive relationships. When children are supported through their trauma by adults they trust, they are able to develop regulatory functions to help positively manage the stress they feel in adverse situations.

As a result, many healthcare systems, teachers and community organizations have taken action to identify and prevent ACEs by connecting children with resources and adult figures they need to cope.

At the Children’s Hospital of Illinois, staff developed an innovative preventative program to teach children coping strategies and avoid depression. The program, Chicago Urban Resiliency Building (CURB), provides a combination of counseling and web-based lessons over the course of three months. Learning proven interventions, the children are given techniques to manage toxic stress and express their feelings.

Similarly, educators, who often see children more than their parents, are taking individual steps to provide reassuring learning environments for their students. Melissa Steel King, a former teacher turned education activist, discussed how she, in the absence of proper training and resources, developed her own mechanisms for supporting students who experienced trauma. By allowing students to speak freely, developing a delineated safe space in the classroom, and encouraging healthy emotion management, King was able to boost the academic success of a young boy who witnessed his parents’ murder in his own home.

In addition to these initiatives, a closer interconnection between the medical and educational care of children can help to form a comprehensive system of support to help better care for children experiencing trauma. One way to tackle this is to integrate more robust healthcare systems into schools, in the form of school-based clinics that are already budding across the country.

As providers continue take population health into consideration, more solutions must be developed for addressing ACEs and toxic levels of stress in children. And addressing the social determinants that factor into exposure to trauma and stress in children is vital to ensuring the lifelong health of our children.

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