Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: Nadine Burke Harris

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.'”