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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: Childhood Trauma

Tackling Childhood Trauma

“‘This is not a poverty problem. This is not a race problem. This is a function of human biology.'”

In an NPR interview with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who gave a TED Talk on Adverse Childhood Experiences in 2014, Burke Harris dove deeper into what childhood trauma does to a young child’s body and how she recommends healing its negative effects.

In her new bookThe Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, Burke Harris describes the ways in which childhood trauma can change one’s physical health for the remainder of their life.

“It can tip a child’s developmental trajectory and affect physiology. It can trigger chronic inflammation and hormonal changes that can last a lifetime. It can alter the way DNA is read and how cells replicate, and it can dramatically increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes — even Alzheimer’s.”

In the NPR interview, Burke Harris compared toxic stress created from childhood trauma to an interaction with a deadly bear. First, an individual feels a sense of adrenaline, and then his/her brain regulates executive functioning on how to logically handle the situation. One’s immune system is also affected because it is preparing for a potentially dangerous situation where harm to one’s body may occur.

She notes that if this reaction happens once in awhile, maybe if you ran into a bear, then it is okay. However, what is happening with adverse childhood experiences is that this happens way too frequently and is permanently affecting their health.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris giving her Ted Talk. CC Image Courtesy of the Nadine Burke Harris website.

In relation to children who grew up in poverty, toxic stress can be seen more frequently.

“‘What we see is that poverty itself may have a very significant impact on, first, kids being exposed to adversity, and second, the probability that the kids who are exposed will go on to develop toxic stress, because of the impact of the stress of poverty on their caregiver,'” Burke Harris explained.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance reflected on the stresses he faced as a child growing up in a poor household and how his family has been affected by these same toxic patterns as well.

“For many kids, the first impulse is escape, but people who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door. This is how my aunt found herself married at sixteen to an abusive husband. It’s how my mom, the salutatorian of her high school class, had both a baby and divorce, but not a single college credit under her belt before her teenage years were over… For me, understanding my past and knowing that I wasn’t doomed gave me the hope and fortitude to deal with the emotions of my youth” (229).

J.D. Vance and his half-sister, Lindsay, growing up in Ohio. CC Image Courtesy of the J.D. Vance website.

Burke Harris also stressed the importance of health clinics diagnosing adverse childhood experiences and effectively treating them. She created the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. Her goal is that pediatricians are doing routine screenings for these adverse experiences since early intervention makes a drastic difference.

In a school environment, some of the clearest signs of children experiencing toxic stress are difficulties with impulse control and with self-regulation, and trouble with attention. The symptoms are very similar to those of ADHD. However, it is difficult for educators to tackle the problem without enough resources to use for students in need.

She concluded the interview with suggestions on how to tackle such a monstrous and complex problem.

“‘…Schools you need help! Doctors offices, you’re part of the solution! You know, if you’re in early childhood, you’re part of the solution. If you’re in juvenile justice, you’re part of the solution. We all need to be part of the solution. If we each take off our little piece, it’s nuts how far we’ll be able to go, together as a society, in terms of solving this problem.'”

Gillian Keebler
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office

Two UW-Madison Professors Investigate Childhood Trauma Effects

“‘It’s not that people are overtly deciding to take these negative risks, or do things that might get them in trouble… It may very well be that their brains are not really processing the information that should tell them they are headed to a bad place, that this is not the right step to take.'”

Seth Pollak, a UW-Madison psychology professor has spent years studying the effects of stress on children.

Adults who endured high levels of stress within their childhood have difficulty reading signs of potential punishment or loss, which makes them vulnerable to certain avoidable health, legal, and financial problems.

According to a study conducted by researchers at UW-Madison, this problem may in fact be biological, stemming from certain inactivity in the brain where a situation should be triggering awareness.

This discovery may help educate at-risk youth to avoid risky situations.

Pollak and an additional UW-Madison psychiatry Professor Rasmus Birn conducted an experiment with 50 people aged 19 to 23. These participants participated in a previous study with Pollak when they were 8 years old. The participants were those who endured high stress levels as children, such as parents killed by gunfire or substance abuse, maltreatment, and foster home placements.

The study was conducted by two UW-Madison professors. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

The participants were put through several tasks while their brain functionality was measured for activity areas of loss, risk, and reward in the brain.

Results showed that high childhood stress participants were less attentive to a potential loss situation than the low childhood stress group, and were more stimulated by losses. The high-stress childhood group also reported more risky behaviors- smoking, not wearing a seatbelt in a car, or texting while driving- compared to low stress participants.

To the researchers’ surprise, it was solely the participants’ childhood stress level, and not the stress in their current lives, that was a predictor of their abilities to identify potential losses or avoiding risky behaviors.

“’So many of our behavioral interventions are predicated on the idea that people will understand there’s a sign they’re about to be punished,’” Pollak said. “’Maybe we need to rethink some of those things.’”

The researchers plan to further investigate their findings and continue researching this topic.

“’Now that we have this finding, we can use it to guide us to look at specific networks in the brain that are active and functionally connected,’” Birn said. “’We may find that childhood stress reshapes the way communication happens across the brain.’”

Gillian Keebler
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office

Childhood Trauma and its Potentially Detrimental Effects

“‘Chaotic — there is no other way to describe my childhood. I always felt alone.’”

Rob Sullivan, now an adult, still remembers the traumatic events from his childhood that impact him every day. In an interview with the New York Times, Sullivan discusses how the trauma in his life as a child has led him to hardships in his adulthood.

Running into trouble with the law as an adult, Sullivan believes that he is responsible for making bad decisions in his own life, although experts claim that this troubling path may begin long before the individual recognizes it.

What happens to a child in their youth can affect their decisions as an adult- whether that be ending up in prison or even their overall cognitive functioning.

“’Childhood trauma is a huge factor within the criminal justice system,’” said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at Cornell University and co-director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect. “’It is among the most important things that shapes addictive and criminal behavior in adulthood.’”

As seen in Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance describes traumatic events of his own childhood that still affect him and his relationships today.

“In my worst moments, I convince myself that there is no exit, and no matter how much I fight old demons, they are as much an inheritance as my blue eyes or brown hair” (230).

Author J.D. Vance pictured with his grandmother. CC Image Courtesy of the J.D. Vance website.

Childhood trauma affects everyone differently, but for both Sullivan and Vance, the troubling memories from their childhood do not fade away with age.

Both Sullivan and Vance completed questionnaires that measured the degree of childhood trauma, criteria including physical and verbal abuse, abandonment, and several others, and the two of them scored relatively high.

In Sullivan’s case, there have been many connections to those in prison and their experiences with childhood trauma.

New York Times study followed 10 newly released prisoners in Connecticut for a year, Sullivan being one of them. A look at their histories demonstrated that before they were prisoners, many of them were victims of abuse.

Seven of those 10 completed a questionnaire to quantify the level of childhood trauma they experienced, and all but one scored four or more, indicating a high degree of trauma and an elevated risk for chronic diseases, depression, substance abuse, and violence.

Although traumatic childhood experiences affect individuals differently throughout their lifetime, most adults remember many of the traumatic events they experienced. For Sullivan, he has run into trouble following some patterns of previous family members, such as substance abuse and prison. Although it is a grueling process, he hopes to turn his life around for the better.

Child trauma affects the lives of many adults today. CC Image Courtesy of Pixabay.

“’I have never followed through on anything in my life,’” he said, tears in his eyes. “’It’s hard. I know if I end up back in the streets I will end up drinking and using again.’”

Undoubtedly, childhood trauma has been scientifically proven to affect individuals in their adult years. It will be interesting to see what kind of continued discoveries we will read about childhood trauma moving forward and possible solutions for this serious issue.

Gillian Keebler
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office

Childhood Trauma Shown to Shorten Lifespan

“Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today,” explained Dr. Robert Block, former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In a Ted Talk given by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris on the effects of childhood trauma throughout one’s lifetime, she revealed that childhood trauma increases the risk for seven of the ten leading causes of death in the USA.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris giving her Ted Talk. CC Image Courtesy of the Nadine Burke Harris website.

For those who are exposed to high levels of childhood trauma, life expectancy is 20 years shorter. They are also three times more likely to develop heart disease and lung cancer.

Dr. Burke Harris then summarized what she has been studying: adverse childhood experiences, referred to as ACEs, and their effect on health throughout one’s lifetime. ACEs include:

  • physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • physical or emotional neglect
  • parental mental illness
  • substance dependence
  • incarceration
  • parental separation or divorce
  • domestic violence

For every ACE that applied to the participant, they would get a point on their ACE score.

According to the study, 67% of the population has experienced at least one ACE.

The study then revealed that the higher one’s ACE score, the worse their physical and mental health outcomes tend to be.

It has been shown that growing up in lower income households often presents more severe levels of trauma for children. Unfortunately, this is a common dilemma for many. One out of every five children is born into poverty, and the cycle is difficult to break.

As seen with our 2017 Go Big Read bookHillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance grew up in a low-income household, facing adversities, which impacted his life as an adult.

Author J.D. Vance pictured with his grandmother. CC Image Courtesy of the J.D. Vance website.

Not only is it more likely for children in poor families to posses a high ACEs score, but it has also been noted that being raised in a low income household disturbs children’s brain development and academic performance.

In his memoir, Vance explained that when his mother moved him away from the comfort of his grandparents, he was unable to sleep, had depressed feelings, and his grades plummeted.

According to an article on the effect of childhood poverty on development and educational outcomes, children in chronically poor families have “lower cognitive and academic performance” and higher levels of behavior problems than children who are not poor.

It is painfully clear that childhood trauma and the environment that the child matures in can have a lifetime effect on their health and development. Although there have been large numbers of studies on these effects, finding a solution is not as straightforward.

However, Dr. Burke Harris remains hopeful.

“This is treatable. This is beatable… We are the movement.”

Gillian Keebler
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office