As part of our commitment to both ourselves as an organisation, the young people we nurture and the families and communities we support, we (Stramash) are forever students. We might share what we have learned along the way, how we do things at the moment and why (in fact that is the very nature of this blog) but we are never ‘done learning’. Our practice and journey, like yours is ever evolving; the more we learn, the better we understand. The better we understand, the better support and care we can provide for our people.
12 months ago marked the first screening in Scotland of the film Resilience. This film tackles the awareness of ACE scores – Adverse Childhood Experiences – and the relationship between ACES and physical and emotional health. Stramash Fort William held a screening and discussion of the film a few weeks ago and I attended a similar screening in Inverness this week. We want Stramash to be ACE aware, and extend that awareness as far as we can reach!
It is widely accepted that a challenging or unstable childhood environment with parents who are perhaps in poverty, drug or alcohol dependent or suffering with mental health conditions will have a psychological impact on a child, but a physical one? Living in a domestic abuse household would certainly affect your mind and sense of wellbeing, but could it also give you cancer?
The ‘smoking gun’ of the health and Social Care crisis of the modern western world, ACE scores have been found to impact everything from likelihood of depression, smoking or diabetes to heart disease and cancer.
“When exposed to stressful situations, the “fight, flight or freeze” response floods our brain with corticotrophin-releasing hormones (CRH), which usually forms part of a normal and protective response that subsides once the stressful situation passes. However, when repeatedly exposed to ACEs, CRH is continually produced by the brain, which results in the child remaining permanently in this heightened state of alert and unable to return to their natural relaxed and recovered state. Children and young people who are exposed to ACEs therefore have increased – and sustained – levels of stress. In this heightened neurological state a young person is unable to think rationally and it is physiologically impossible for them to learn.” – Blackburn.gov who also carried out a similar study.
This toxic stress also inhibits the bodies natural ability to regenerate and heal itself, contributing to physical illness in later life.
What makes the study which forms the cornerstone of the film so interesting, is the people surveyed were not ‘from the other side of town’, from areas of high social or economic deprivation, they were from middle class suburbs, all were college educated with jobs and great healthcare. In a replica study carried out in the UK in 2015 (Bellis et al) found that almost half (47%) of the adult population in England had at least 1 ACE, while 14% had 4 or more. As was the case in the original study, there was a strong link between number of ACEs and health outcomes. Individuals with 4 or more ACEs were 3 times more likely to smoke, 7 times more likely to have been involved in violence in the past year and 11 times more likely to have ever been in prison. We can no longer claim that this is something that happens to ‘other people’.
ACES change our bodies and our brains
Behaviour is Biology. Behaviour is communication. I was called out for putting my head in my hands during the discussion after the film, when a comment was made about how a child had been described as ‘such a bad kid’ (I’ve never been great at hiding my feelings!) Children don’t want to be ‘badly behaved’. No child is bad. What awareness of ACEs can do is to further assist us in reframing that behaviour and translating what that child is trying to say. What is their behaviour telling us about the toxic stress that child may be under, that they can’t find the words for? Better yet, how can we help them?
Because that is the ace up your sleeve. It is not our job to use ACE scores (as we like to use so many other labels) to explain away, to justify or to diagnose just for the sake of it. To write off ‘oh well what do you expect, he’s a 6 ACEer’. It is to further inform how we go about identifying and focusing on the repair process. The children who need that nurturing and supportive adult to listen are often the ones who are making it the hardest to reach them. Maybe that looks really loud and aggressive or maybe it looks quiet and withdrawn.
However the message is getting to us, early intervention is key to mitigating the effects of ACEs. Getting families the right support early; providing strong parental buffering can reduce the effects of ACEs for children in later life. Because that’s the point, parents have ACE scores, their parents have ACE scores….we are a product of our attachments and upbringing and ‘Trauma is not about what’s wrong with you, it’s about what’s happened to you.’ This is not about judging, this is about recognising all the complexities of the human experience and supporting families (in all their varying forms) to provide safe and loving environments to raise their children; reducing the dosage of trauma and disrupting the cycle of adversity.
Making yourself available to listen is one of the most loving acts we can provide to our children. The Miss Kendra Curriculum which also features in the film, provides a framework for children to learn what is acceptable behaviour towards them (Miss Kendra’s list) because we must remember that however bad a situation might be making a child feel, if they have grown up in this environment all their lives, this is normalised. How would they know that this isn’t going on in every house? That this isn’t what it is to be a child? It also provides opportunities for children to tell their worries to Miss Kendra, providing valuable insight for their carers.
We can’t support what we don’t know about
As practitioners we can get so caught up in the provision element of our jobs – the learning and development, the focus children and the delivery. While this is an essential and worthwhile use of our time I am reminded (again) how important it is to make time to just be present. To ask questions, to discuss the life and experience that these children are having. How are they feeling? What are their fears? What is their favourite time of day? These relationships are the foundation of building resilience.
Whilst we are all trained in Safeguarding, ACE and trauma awareness is somewhat more nuanced (although there is clearly an overlap) and I welcome the slight shift in focus of this grass roots movement to use what we know both anecdotally and from scientific study, to support and heal trauma multi-generationally.
ACE of hearts
As is often the way the discussion following the screening was as illuminating as the movie. I was in Suzanne’s camp, I could have stayed till 5pm too but David had a date with ‘a life’ (remind me what that is again as I sit writing this on a Sunday afternoon?!)
It was wonderful to be in a room of passionate and engaged people who truly cared about getting things right for children and families. I am mindful though that this knowledge and understanding ripples out, rather than remaining within the pool of people whose lives and work are in the childcare/education field. We have a habit of viewing ourselves as underdogs and getting frustrated that policy makers aren’t listening or making changes that we know to be the most beneficial. We use acronyms and have a myriad of policies and programmes which might seem intimidating to those outside our circle.
We become ‘them’, when really we need to be ‘us’.
ACEs affect all of us. ACEs are a societal issue not merely political or educational, therefore we do not need to wait for permission to start changing things now! We are society, we create our shared reality. When we remember that, it becomes easier to apply essential human compassion and empathy to one another. There is more that unites us than divides us in this human experience.
Let’s change the narrative from Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be The verse’ to something more hopeful! Lets get rid of parental blame and shame culture, lets stop pretending that ACEs are things that happen to other people, in other communities and unite to create a more loving and supportive environment to raise all our young people.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” – Nelson Mandela.
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