A call to action for individuals, families and communities across the world by Lisa Danylchuk, LMFT.
Children Are People
Every day children are born around the world, bringing hope, life and possibility into families, communities and our global society. Each of these children is a unique and valuable life, and like any other life form children need to be nurtured, to have a healthy environment supporting their growth, learning, and evolution. Of the many human rights efforts we champion as adults, we sometimes forget the need to champion the right for children to have their needs met, rights respected, and their development supported.
Stop Drawing ACE’s
Countless studies have attempted to measure the impact of child mistreatment and abuse. In a recent US study, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser partnered to survey for adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s), and found that more than 63% of over 17,000 respondents reported having at least one adverse childhood experience, ranging from emotional, physical or sexual abuse, to neglect, to having a substance abusing adult in the home.
Most adults agree — no child should be mistreated or have to face these circumstances. It is a privilege that everyone should know, to have the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual support necessary to grow, to thrive and to experience life without facing traumatic experiences in youth.
What happens when children experience neglect and abuse? Data from the ACE study and from neuroimaging of the brains of abused children tell a grave tale. Children exposed to these early relational traumas can experience negative impacts in their neurological development, and the effects can occur across physical, metal, emotional, and social realms. As the ACE study recognizes, life spans of children in these circumstances are often shortened and as trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk outlines in his description of developmental trauma, these early experiences can shape a child’s sense of self, career trajectory and relationships with the greater society.
What Can We Do?
Knowing the realities of childhood trauma paints a bleak picture, and leads to the obvious question: how do we help children thrive and how can we intercept patterns of abuse and neglect?
As a researcher I have studied interpersonal relationships and resilience at leading academic institutions. As a clinician I have witnessed the resilience of the human body, mind and spirit. It will take deep social, political and cultural shifts to end child abuse, but there are steps each of us can take in to encourage this individual resilience and evolve in a way that reduces the impact of these negative experiences on our society.
Here are three things we can do to reduce child abuse and support those who have experienced it.
- Promote Psychological and Emotional Education
A parent educator I used to work with always found it bewildering that people need a license to drive a car but get no formal training in parenting. While I’m not an advocate of regulating reproductive rights, I do think that those of us who understand the detrimental effects of neglect, abuse and early trauma have the power to inform others by teaching the facts we have gleaned through research in this area. Simple resources are available through the ACE study website, where anyone can take a quiz to assess both their own exposure to adverse childhood experiences and their resilience factors. Explore this resource and pass it on! While trauma is disempowering, knowledge is empowering.
- Encourage adults to continuously do their own emotional work.
In working with youth, particularly in settings where traumatized youth tend to represent a high percentage of the population – juvenile halls, recovery programs, and specialized schools, there is often an assumption that the youth have problems and the adults do not. What we forget is that children learn through modeling and need not only instruction but role models of the experience of emotional health. It is common in institutional settings in particular that dysfunction in the organization trickles down to impact the youth it serves. Only with attention to the health of the adults and the organization can we truly offer a restorative and healing experience.
- Build networks of support.
It takes a global village to raise our children free from abuse. We cannot afford to turn blind eyes and need to continually adapt our ways of parenting and communicating with one another. While technology increasingly connects us, it also pulls our eyes away from each other. Affect co-regulation happens through subtle communication in our faces, voices and bodies, and we would be wise to harness the power of technology to connect us, rather than becoming lost and isolated by it. Spreading this information intelligently across cultures is also key. Many cultures have norms that normalize the abuse we know brings harm to a child’s development. Having culturally sensitive conversations about health can help us to learn and grow together.
Invest in Prevention
People often neglect to invest in prevention because measuring its effects can prove elusive. However, those who have experienced, witnessed, or been exposed to the horrific effects of child trauma know that any reduction in child abuse is worthwhile and has a positive ripple effect out into the community. If we invest in these three aspects of abuse prevention we may never know whom we have helped, but we will undoubtedly be influencing the world in a positive way.