Recently Kansas City, Missouri Police Chief, Darryl Forte, spoke about child abuse using an electric extension cord as a “discipline cord” with his point that such “discipline” is leading to the high level of violence experienced in the community. The thought of an adult, supposedly a caring adult, using such an instrument to “discipline” a child is beyond comprehension.
But not only is this sort of child abuse and resulting trauma tolerated in the name of teaching children right from wrong, but it has been institutionalized and, in some families, socially acceptable. According to a recent news report and home-made video, a 5-year-old boy was beaten with a wooden paddle by his school principal to teach him a lesson. These are only a few examples of the reported 45% of children in the U.S. who experience significant trauma due to maltreatment and exposure to violence before the age of 5.
Let’s consider a stunning possibility: What if we didn’t accept that it was socially acceptable that 45 percent of all children in the US experience non-normative trauma before the age of five? What if we knew how to universally prevent parents and other adults from causing trauma to happen in children’s lives and that focusing efforts on these strategies would lower this statistic, thus saving nearly one-half of the lives of our precious youngest children?
We do not accept that this number is a “given”: Childhood non-normative trauma is “man-made” or “woman-made”—it is not caused by children but happens to children. Change how adults treat a child, change the statistics.
We have known this to be scientifically true since the 1990s, when a California physician and the National Institute of Health collaborated in a study of adverse experiences during childhood, how those experiences affect life-long physical and emotional health. The adverse experiences studied fell into ten categories: verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, lack of love and support, physical deprivation, divorce, alcoholic or drug abusing family member, mentally ill family member, imprisoned family member, and witness to the physical abuse of family members.
The study, later called the ACE Study, found that having experienced during childhood only one area out of ten resulted in a significant increase in smoking, heart disease, IV drug use, sexual promiscuity, STDs, liver disease, becoming a victim of physical violence, sexual assault, cancer, mental health problems, and obesity. The more categories of adverse childhood experiences, the greater the chance of bad physical and emotional health as adults. These outcomes make the reduction of adverse childhood experience a tremendous need for a national public health initiative.
Children who suffer the trauma of adverse experiences during childhood are exposed to high levels of stress and, in effect, end up suffering from a form of PTSD, or as it was once called, combat fatigue. The increased stress levels produce high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, that becomes toxic to the body. A child’s developing brain is critically affected with the greatest damage being to the executive or reasoning part of at the brain. As a result, the traumatized child grows up being unable to control impulses, focus on tasks, moderate emotions, and function in school.
But why, you might ask, do some children escape adverse childhood experiences and grow to be healthy, productive adults? The ACE researchers found the answer: Children who had a consistently supportive, protective adult to depend on were able to reduce their stress level and the toxic effects of the stress, and thereby reduce the harmful physical and emotional results found in those without such support.
So, given the results of the ACE Study, it is obvious that the emotional and physical health outcomes of trauma during childhood are not only predictable but wholly preventable. Children aren’t born with toxic stress. We create toxic stress by how we treat children, often with the best of intentions, but little of the essential skills for healthy parenting—self-talk, empathy, and teaching problem-solving and frustration tolerance.
It’s Not Rocket Science, It’s Brain Science
Parenting by bullying—verbal insults and slapping, threatening and spanking, ignoring and discounting, for example—results in non-normative, trauma. All have been demonstrated to lead to poor mental and physical health and lack of executive functioning. Want to stop damaging children’s lives from childhood trauma and lower the lifelong risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression, suicide and violence? Look to the root of both: loving, caring, supportive and protective relationships with a child. Look to universal, early, healthy parent skill-building.
So this Mothers’ Day, reach out and love a caring, supportive and protective mom…the priceless gift that never grows old.
Psychologist Jerry L. Wyckoff, Ph.D. and parent educator and journalist Barbara C. Unell are the co-authors of the new release, Discipline with Love and Limits. Find them at www.Raisedwithloveandlimits.com and Facebook.