In a previous life, I was a practicing pediatrician. One of my greatest joys was seeing the built-in resilience in kids. Their joy, their toughness, and their very presence were the highlights of my job. The heartbreak of my job was seeing first-hand the way-too-extreme challenges that we present to our children in this country. And yet even then, I didn't appreciate the pervasive nature of those challenges.
Professionals who work with children on a daily basis are trained and obligated to recognize the obvious signs of child abuse or neglect. In my medical training, I was taught to be vigilant for suspicious injuries, bruises, and cigarette burns on a child's skin. I was not taught about the true scale and scope of the problem, or that there could be invisible wounds just as serious and harmful to health as the visible ones.
I am startled and dismayed to report that we are now facing an epidemic of childhood trauma. Studies show that two out of every three children in America experience some form of trauma, and at least one in five are exposed to multiple types of trauma. What counts as trauma? Things we can all agree on: physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, seeing alcohol and/or drug abuse in the home, an incarcerated household member, a household member who is chronically depressed, mentally ill, institutionalized, or suicidal, and violence in the neighborhood, school or home.
Two out of three counts as an epidemic for our country -- an epidemic of extreme and unrelenting stress, acutely and wrongly prevalent among children. This isn't the kind of day to day stress we normally think of. It is stress of a much deeper kind, and it can lead to struggles in school, depression, and other serious health issues.
The research clearly shows that traumatic stress literally blocks bodies and minds from developing in a healthy way. It activates our amygdala, which is our fear center, and sends survival signals to the rest of our body, flooding us with the hormones that work for crises but hurt us if sustained over time. And note carefully: The body is doing the right thing to protect us in the short term -- it's the unrelenting and extreme nature of the trauma that takes a terrible toll.
Let me stop right here to say there is very good news: The effects of traumatic stress can be undone. The research also shows, more and more, that the brain and body can heal. Kids are especially resilient. There is even evidence that small doses of positive, healing work can buffer kids (and adults) against future stressors.
But we must help. First we need to work to prevent these deep kinds of trauma and bring more people out of the clutches of drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and mental illness. We must also intervene early and often.
Research shows that well-timed interventions in schools, neighborhoods, and health settings can help us heal. Children need trusting relationships, with adults and each other. They need to be taught how to manage their emotions when scared and overwhelmed. Don't we all!
Here are some concrete steps we can take:
In our schools, we can recognize that chronic absence or misbehavior is a symptom of a possible health need, as surely as a cigarette burn. School leaders can come together to create common sense school discipline policies rather than only punitive ones.
In our neighborhoods, we can support after school programs that connect children to caring adults. We can train our police partners in youth brain development, especially the effects of trauma, and how to keep officers and youth safer.
And in health care settings, we can continue to improve our screening process for serious signs of stress. In fact, The American Academy of Pediatrics is currently developing a screening survey for doctors to use.
Children are a marvel to me. I always thought they were courageous and now I know they are so much more so, every single day, than I ever suspected. Let's all commit to supporting schools, neighborhoods, health clinics and homes in becoming places that build the resilience in all of us. Let's build a world where it's okay for kids to have just the right amount of everyday courage, not one where they need to be small superheroes just to make it through.