Saturday, October 24, 2015

What Happens in Childhood Does Not Stay in Childhood

Childhood is a relatively short period of time compared to the average lifespan.  And yet so much of  what happens during those formative years impacts the individual for decades.  A landmark study that actually began in 1995 illustrates this convincingly.  It is known as the Adverse Childhood Experience Study and is "one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.  The study is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego."  Source

The ACE Study has followed over 17,000 enrollees in Kaiser's health plan who underwent a comprehensive physical exam as well as completed the ten-question ACE Test.  Data from the study revealed "staggering proof of the health, social and economic risks that result from childhood trauma."  Source.  ACE scores can range from zero to ten, with ten reflecting the highest number of adverse childhood experiences by category.  It is important to note that the ACE Test does not account for the total number of adverse experiences in each category throughout childhood but rather the number of categories of adverse experiences an individual encountered.

The ACE Test asked participants about ten types of childhood trauma:
  • Three types of abuse (sexual, physical and emotional)
  • Two types of neglect (physical and emotional)
  • Five types of family dysfunction (having a mother who was treated violently, an alcoholic or drug addicted household member, family member imprisoned or diagnosed with mental illness, divorce or separation of parents)
The study revealed that childhood trauma is far more common than previously believed and that the consequences of the trauma last a lifetime.  Individuals with an ACE Score of 4 had increased prevalence rates for the following behaviors:

Source 1   Source 2 
Clearly, what happens in childhood does not stay in childhood.  We focus a lot on the horrendous impact of child sexual abuse and molestation, as we should.  But there are other harmful experiences that negatively impact a child for life that we should be just as concerned about.  Improving the quality of the parents' marriage, making sure mom is not treated violently, dealing effectively with depression, addiction and other types of mental illness that may be present in the family as well as having a zero tolerance for abuse and neglect of any kind are all incredibly important aspects of a child's life that we need to pay critical attention to.  We can never give up on the important task of ensuring that our children have safe, healthy environments so that they can enjoy a long and productive life.

But what about those of us who are already grown?  We may recognize and acknowledge that the environment in which we grew and developed was toxic and we may already be struggling with some of the consequences that the ACE Study revealed.  Is there hope?  YES, there is.  Simply acknowledging that what happened in childhood happened to us, that we did not cause it, we did not deserve it and we were powerless to prevent it, begins the process.  We change the questions from "What's wrong with me?" to "What happened to me?"  There is power in naming our experience and acknowledging it as trauma.  And by dealing with the trauma, with the help of qualified individuals, we can change the outcome--we can minimize or eliminate the potential health and behavioral risks that our ACE's have created.  We commit ourselves to practicing good self-care, mindfulness and gentleness with that frightened, traumatized child within.  By re-parenting our inner child, we ensure that what happened in our childhood stays back there and does not continue to impact our present or our future.

Our goals when it comes to childhood maltreatment are twofold:  we must do all that we can to change the culture of violence, exploitation and maltreatment that exists today so that tomorrow's children fare better than yesterday or today's.  And, we must commit ourselves to caring for our first child--ourselves--and to healing those hurts of yesterday.

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