By definition, children in foster care have experienced bad things. As a result of abuse and/or neglect, children are removed from their homes and, for their safety, they are placed in foster homes, group homes, campus-based programs or hospitals.
If a child is lucky, she is not separated from her siblings or gets to stay in only one foster home. But, often children are not so lucky and end up being moved from one place to another — sometimes 20 times or more. Each separation, each move piles on another bad experience. We may be keeping children safe from physical harm, but are we paying attention to the impact on their brains, their mental health, their souls?
Advancements in brain science are proving that there is a strong relationship between bad things that can happen in childhood and our health and well-being as adults. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) matter. They impact brain chemistry and brain development throughout our lifetime. ACEs contribute to mental health problems, yet we turn away from attending to things that damage the optimal functioning of the most important organ in our body.
Since the 1960s, we have known how to diagnose the most serious types of physical abuse from a child’s physical symptoms. Now we know even experiences that don’t leave behind physical scars on a child’s body can leave terrible scars on a child’s soul. Scars that have long-term negative effects and that can, if left unaddressed, shorten life by 20 years, contribute to long-term poor health outcomes, and impact productivity both as an employee and a human being.
We have incontrovertible proof of these correlations. Intuitively we all know that what happens to us as a child matters. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research is based on a list of 10 specific experiences and includes things like physical, verbal and sexual abuse; loss of a parent through divorce, death or incarceration; feeling unloved; having a parent with mental health or addiction problems, and experiencing hunger. Initial ACE studies found that a higher ACE score is related to a higher probability of poor adult heath with links to heart disease, lung cancer, depression, obesity and use of alcohol and tobacco.
The past matters, but it need not doom us. Brain science helps us understand that there are things we can do to increase positive health outcomes despite past trauma. We know that when a child experiences stress, the brain chemistry changes in ways that can affect her physical and mental health, and her ability to learn. We know that the more often bad things happen, the greater the long-term negative impact. We also know that living in constant stress is toxic.
But there is also good news: Loving, safe, nurturing adults, families, schools and communities can offset bad effects. When loved, hugged and cared for, children’s brains experience physiological changes that are good for the brain and that can counteract some of the effects of stress-related changes. And, the more frequently good experiences happen, the more powerfully they can counteract the effects of toxic stress.
As educators and others working with children learn how to ask questions about bad behaviors rather than labeling kids as bad, and as they learn to recognize the signs that a child may be suffering from toxic stress, then children can be met nonjudgmentally with effective, specific interventions that provide emotional safety and teach coping skills and accountability, rather than punishment.
While we can’t, and we shouldn’t, protect our children from every single one of life’s difficult experiences, we can help them build resiliency by ensuring that they also experience the joy, safety and stability of warm, nurturing, caring relationships. In order to flourish, children need safety, stability and structure. They need to be able to count on adults to be in charge and to ensure that they are emotionally as well as physically safe. They need to have the opportunity to make choices within clear, age-appropriate boundaries so that they can develop a sense of mastery and personal accountability.
And there is good news for adults as well. Our brains maintain neuroplasticity throughout our lifetimes, so it is never too late to face the past and recover from its negative impact. Therapy does not change the past, but it can work to free us from the bondage of the past. It is possible to build resiliency and recover, no matter how old you are. Brain science says that, too.
Kathy Colbenson, LMFT, is chief executive officer at CHRIS Kids (chriskids.org), an Atlanta-based nonprofit that provides trauma-informed services to create hope and healing which enables children, youth and families achieve self sufficiency.