Sundance Film: Understand Huge Impact of Tough Childhood Events, Build Resilience

Print More

Screen shots from the film

A new film by James Redford urges greater understanding of adverse childhood experiences and their power to disrupt a child's future.

As James Redford’s new film begins, kids are skateboarding, playing basketball, climbing on a playground in the distance — doing everyday kid things.

“We all like to think of childhood as this time of joy and innocence, but for many of us it’s just not true,” says the narrator.

The documentary, fresh from a January showing at the Sundance Film Festival, is about resilience — but not the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps resilience.

It’s about what needs to be done to help the large numbers of kids who have had adverse childhood experiences — and what happens if they don’t get help.

The film “Resilience: The Biology of Stress & the Science of Hope” presents the two doctors, Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti, whose pioneering study showed that adverse childhood experiences predict future health problems.

“Everyone needs this information,” says Anda.

The study showed that adverse experiences abound. For example, nearly 14 percent of 17,000 middle-class adults reported that their mothers were subject to domestic violence, and 30 percent reported substance abuse in their childhood home.

Of 10 adverse experiences, the more a child experienced, the more likely that child was to have later heart disease, pulmonary disease, financial stress, reduced life expectancy and other problems.

[Related: My Trauma Grew into Motivation to Help Others]

When Dr. Nadine Burke Harris learned about the study “it was like I was hit by a bolt of lightening,” she says in the film. The research offered Harris, who works in the low-income Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, a new way to treat kids that addresses not only medical problems but school and behavior problems, too.

Screenshot 2016-04-10 21.52.41

Redford's film shows how the more adverse experiences a child faces, the more likely the child could become chronically stressed and face health concerns — from depression to heart disease and more.

Her clinic now screens all children for adverse experiences. Parents are given support so they can serve as a buffer for their child. A nurse makes home visits, and therapy is also offered.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University coined the term “toxic stress,” referring to the prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships.

Chronically stressed children have changes in their brains, according to the center.

But the science that showed the problem also provides answers, according to the film. Research shows that a stable caring adult is the key to building resiliency in kids.

A key message of the film is that kids are not doomed to poor outcomes. Resilience is built, not inborn.

It shows, for example, how a school in New Haven, Connecticut, helps kindergartners become more resilient by writing letters to the fictional character, “Miss Kendra,” about their worries. Drama therapists answer the letters, addressing the child’s situation.

Redford, the son of actor Robert Redford, previously made the film “Paper Tigers” about a high school in Walla Walla, Washington, that adopted a trauma-informed approach to discipline.

“Resilience” was reviewed by Hollywood publications, not altogether favorably.

The Hollywood Reporter complained the film oversold its message, and Variety complained about the facts and figures.

In fact, “Resilience” makes a strong case for a concerted public-health effort to address childhood adversity — not only to relieve children’s suffering, but to prevent the ills that follow.

More related articles:

Book review: Relational Treatment of Trauma: Stories of Loss and Hope

New Toolkit Issued to Help Providers Measure Trauma With ACES Survey

California High School Health Clinic Asks Students About Childhood Trauma to Improve Their Health