Marilyn Hawes: Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Traumatised Brain
Following the successful Freedom From Abuse “Resilience” online events in February and March, and with others planned for June and September (book here), we thought it appropriate to raise the flag again on Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACEs.
In this article, Freedom From Abuse‘s Marilyn Hawes focusses on the damage Adverse Childhood Experiences can cause in young people.
Children are unable to “fix“ their trauma caused by adverse childhood experiences in the same way that adults can, therefore, it is critical we embrace the reality these experiences have on children as a matter of urgency.
We are all unique and have differing sensitivities which raise anxiety. Many more children will now be experiencing the negative impact of ACEs. The true impact may never be known but when new statistics emerge it will not make easy reading.
The Public Health Crisis of Toxic Stress
In “usual” circumstances a baby’s brain grows 25% to 80% of an adult size in the first 2 years. Critical restructuring continues through childhood development of empathy, trust, and community. In the developing brain, which continues to grow until we are 25 years of age, cortisol breaks neural pathways, thus, changing the landscape of the brain.
When in trauma cortisol is secreted from the adrenal glands. Blood pressure rises, as do sugar levels, pupils dilate and blood shoots from the stomach to bigger muscles. It is a biological response to fear. A child will often find ways to self-soothe often using drugs or food which can lead to addiction or obesity. Is it any surprise a child’s behaviours will be negatively impacted?
If you have zero ACEs is your life you are in the minority!
NO child should go unseen or slip under the radar.
How Trauma Affects the Brain
When we react to trauma, it causes a spike of Cortisol, damaging neural pathways and connections in our brains. This can change the “landscape” of our brains which isn’t fully developed until approximately 25 years of age.
Teachers often ask, “Why is this child behaving like this?” Let us not forget, when our brains are in trauma we can’t concentrate or think logically.
Have you ever heard yourself or a colleague say:
“It doesn’t take much to set this girl off!”
This may be caused by chronic hyper arousal, as a result of which, the teen is easily provoked.
“This child cannot sit still and won’t pay attention.”
Is this a possible result of hyperactivity, hyper arousal and the physical agitation which accompanies them?
“This boy is really going to hurt someone!“
Aggression gets people to move away, an important response if someone is too close to memories they can’t process.
“That boy is looking for trouble “
People complain he causes trouble wherever he goes, taking unnecessary risks.
Even simple changes in our behaviours can help – greeting children as they arrive at school or in your classroom, making eye contact and being curious about who they are can make such a difference and maybe the only time in their day they feel positive.
Adverse Childhood Experiences are Major Causes of Later Life, Severe and Multiple Disadvantages
- Childhood abuse, neglect and other ACEs are precursors of over 80 negative life outcomes. Compared to those with no ACEs, those with 4+ACEs have a 35 times greater risk of suicide;
- 3+% of the population suffer lifelong disadvantage from the irreversible neurological damage of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD); and
- Most of the prime root causes of mental illness are strongly associated with ACES’s.
Early symptoms of being on a pathway to multiple severe disadvantages are visible in children who ‘externalise’ problems, for example, those who suffer from Social, Emotional and Behavioural Disorder (SEBD). They are less detectable in those who ‘internalise’ (including the disabled or neglected).
- Children who both externalise and internalise risk being unable to concentrate on schoolwork;
- A significant co-occurrence of Social, Emotional and Behavioural Disorder (SEBD) and Special Educational Needs (SEN) can be seen both in children who bully (externalising) and those who endure it (internalising); and
- By the age of 2-3 years, 17% of children with ACEs are already 10 times more aggressive than the most peaceable 33%.
ACEs and Home Life
Practitioners agree most misbehaviour in school has its roots in the home. Children with ACES are:
- 2 times more likely (currently) to binge drink and have a poor diet
- 3 times more likely to be a current smoker
- 5 times more likely to have had sex before they were 16
- 6 times more likely to have had, or caused, an unplanned teenage pregnancy
- 7 times more likely to have been involved in violence in the previous year
- 10 times more likely to have felt suicidal or self-harmed
- 11 times more likely to have used heroin or been incarcerated
Childhood abuse, neglect and other ACEs are precursors of more than 80 negative life outcomes.
Unmitigated ACEs start a relentless progression of lifetime disadvantages. These manifest as measurably increased risks for physical, mental and lifestyle disadvantages, including increased risks for addiction, cancer and heart, lung and liver disease (after allowing for lifestyle-related effects).
They form key threats for lifelong dysfunction, including inter-generational cycles of low self-esteem, resilience and empathy, providing fertile ground for:
- Childhood antisocial behaviour, including bullying (perpetrated or suffered)
- Substance dependency and mental/emotional health problems
- Low educational and employment achievements, and later poor parenting practices, and consequences
- Absence of childhood resilience, leading to social dependency, exclusion, and repeated cycles of ACEs
Children with 4+ ACEs compared to those with none were:
- 3 times more likely to have never/rarely felt relaxed
- 3 times more likely to have never/rarely felt close to other people
- 4 times more likely to have never/rarely been thinking clearly
- 5 times more likely to never/rarely have dealt with problems well
- 5 times more likely to have never/rarely been able to make up their own mind about things
- 6 times more likely to have never/rarely felt optimistic about the future
- 6 times more likely to have never/rarely felt useful
What can we do in the short term?
The vagus nerve has two bunches of sensory nerve cell bodies and it connects the brainstem to the body. It allows the brain to monitor and receive information about several of the body’s different functions, one of which is diaphragmatic breathing.
By exercising slow deep breaths – breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5, breathe slowly out for 5, repeat for 5 or more. Doing this 5 times a day can bring about calmness.
Trauma reduces oxygenated blood!
We must take reality on board as soon as possible or, as teachers, we are failing the children in our care. It is tragic to avoid the issues and unhelpful to academic outcomes, resulting in damaged children we should and could have helped.
As teachers we are accountable to do the best we can.