Guest columnists

Ending cycle of violence starts with making children priority
By Rachel C. Allen and Dr. Judi Addelston

“Teenage time bombs: A generation in danger,” a series of South Florida Sun-Sentinel stories printed in the Orlando Sentinel between Dec. 15 and 19, might lead readers to fear our children. Today, thanks to the research of Vincent Felliti and Robert Anda, we have a pathway to resilience and healing from the violence we see in our communities.

Felitti and Anda studied the relationship of health risk behavior and disease in adulthood to the breadth of exposure to childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and household dysfunction, known as the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study). According to their research, more than 60% of adults have experienced at least one ACE, and over 15% of adults have experienced four or more ACEs, leading to a lifetime of mental and physical ill health.

ACEs activate a fight or flight response that alters the structure of the developing brain. Children who grow up in environments of toxic stress (prolonged adversity such as physical, mental or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, and/or the accumulated burdens of family poverty, among other hardships), develop brains very different than children who grow up in households with at least one nurturing adult.

Children who grow up in safe, nurturing homes have brains attuned to connection, while children who grow up in homes with toxic stressors have brains wired for protection.

Thus, children in safe homes develop the capacity to self-regulate and handle conflict more skillfully. Children who grow up in trauma develop brains controlled by the fight or flight response, with a perpetual drip of stress hormones such as cortisol, making it virtually impossible for the child to react to the world in a calm, reasonable manner. Always on alert for danger and finding ways to self-protect, these children are less capable of self-regulating, focusing their attention, and trusting adults.

The symptoms of trauma mimic the symptoms of ADHD, often leading children to be treated for a problem they do not have, while of the root cause of their behavior is left untreated. Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy, states that “doctors medicate the messenger (the symptoms) and ignore the message (toxic stress and despair).

Today we have good news. With the science of ACEs, we better understand the impact of trauma on health and behavior over the course of the lifetime, including the violent behavior we see in children. This new understanding invites a paradigm shift from asking “what is wrong with this child” to “what happened to this child.”

Considered a public health crisis, ACEs invite a collective impact response. A national movement is afoot to educate doctors, social workers, educators, law enforcement, judiciary, parents, and government leaders about ACEs and the necessity of investing in children by creating a probability for safe homes, skilled parents, and schools equipped to respond to children experiencing toxic stress. Assuring safe and secure beginnings from birth through childhood, establishing trauma sensitive spaces for all members of our community, especially our children, is a public health imperative.

Proactively preventing ACEs promises the long term outcomes of lessening violence in our community, as well as reliance on criminal justice, mental health, and social services later in life when adults are playing out the consequences of what happened to them as children.

We have a solution. Last year, over 550 people came together for the Creating a Resilient Community: From Trauma to Healing Conference to educate our community about the negative impacts of toxic stress and ACEs. An outcome of the conference is a network of individuals and organizations formed to collaborate across sectors and communities to transform our region to one of prevention, hope, healing, and resilience for all.

There is a solution and we invite you to be a part of it. To begin, we suggest you watch the now-famous TED talk by Nadine Burke-Harris, the newly appointed Surgeon General of California. You can also read her book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity and learn how to identify ACEs, heal trauma, and build resilience. Join us in making every child a priority. Let’s not wait until we fear our children.

Rachel C. Allen is the director of the Peace and Justice Institute at Valencia College and Dr. Judi Addelston is a professor of psychology at Valencia College.