If your child endured childhood trauma of any kind, it might be affecting them more than you think. Dr. Nadine Burkes Harris explains in her Ted Talk the implications of childhood trauma and toxic stress on a child’s health.
Not Just a Social Issue
American children who have experienced trauma at a young age are often referred to social services and mental health professionals. Dr. Harris explains that these measures do not go far enough in protecting the children. Childhood trauma affects physical health. Harris explains that experiencing childhood trauma can affect the developing brain and body of a child by interfering with their developing immune systems and hormonal systems.
Dr. Harris and other doctors made trauma measurable by counting Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. ACEs include physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; and parental mental illness, separation, divorce, substance abuse and incarceration. Dr. Harris devised a system wherein for every ACE a child has experienced, they get one point.
After correlating ACE scores with health outcomes, Dr. Harris and researchers found that ACEs are quite common. In fact, 67% of the population had experienced at least 1 ACE. 12.6% had experienced 4. Researchers also discovered a dose response relationship between aces and health outcomes. With an increase in dose, there comes an increase in response. In this case, the dose is the ACE and the response are health outcomes. Therefore, Dr. Harris discovered that the higher people scored, the more health issues they had.
Dr. Harris brought forth some appalling statistics. People with an ACE score of 4 are 2.5 times more likely to have chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, hepatitis, and depression. The risk of suicidality increases by 12 times for a person with four ACEs. A person with 7 or more ACEs is 3 times as likely to get lung cancer and 3.5 times more likely to get ischemic heart disease, which is the number one killer in America.
Dr. Harris discovered that childhood trauma affects many parts of the brain. One is the nucleus accumbens (pleasure and reward center, implicated in substance abuse). Childhood trauma also inhibits the prefrontal cortex (vital for impulse control and executive function/learning) and causes differences in the amygdala (fear response).
In other words, Dr. Harris and other doctors discovered a real and neurological reason that people exposed to adversity are more likely to partake in high risk activity. When a human is frightened, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis activates. This sends adrenaline pumping through our bodies. This is beneficial in the occasional dangerous situation. However, a child who comes home to an abusive parent might experience stress activation every single day. This does not bode well for the developing immune system or hormonal systems. Even the way DNA is read and transcribed is altered by repeated exposure to toxic stress.
What can you do?
The most important thing to do is to spread awareness. Dr. Harris speaks of people not wanting to acknowledge this as pressing public health issue, but she says that it should be fought with as much rigor as smoking. Keep an eye out for children who have experienced trauma. If your own child has experienced trauma, talk to a physician about how to avoid problems in the future. Dr. Harris discovered that because of compromised hormonal and immune systems, a child with multiple ACEs might have to be treated more vigorously for common health issues like diabetes and asthma.
Text by Martha Kendall Custard