Childhood trauma changes the way kids' brains are wired causing lasting health issues

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Lori Robinson and Suzanne Pachuta at Tempe High School. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Lori Robinson and Suzanne Pachuta at Tempe High School. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Dr. Bruce Perry speaking with Oprah Winfrey. (Source: CBS) Dr. Bruce Perry speaking with Oprah Winfrey. (Source: CBS)
Oprah Winfrey contributed to 60 Minutes with a story about childhood trauma. (Source: CBS) Oprah Winfrey contributed to 60 Minutes with a story about childhood trauma. (Source: CBS)

Childhood trauma can re-wire kids’ brains according to experts.

In their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research study, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that there is a significant relationship between toxic stress in a child’s life, their future overall health and their ability to focus in school.

The ACE study has conducted a list of 10 experiences that can cause trauma for a child including children living with physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; drug use or mental illness in a parent; a family member being incarcerated; witnessing their mom being abused; and divorced parents.

According to the CDC, almost two-thirds of surveyed adults reported at least one ACE, more than one in five reported three or more ACEs, and one in eight children suffer enough trauma to cause lasting damages.

“What the research showed us is that there’s a powerful relationship between early experiences, adverse experiences in early childhood, and the healthy development of our brains and our bodies,” said Lori Robinson, a trauma-informed services trainer for CARE 7. “The way that looks in our children’s lives is that when they’re exposed to too much stress over and over, unfortunately, it makes it very difficult for them to focus, to pay attention, to engage in the learning environment.”

CARE 7 is part of the City of Tempe’s initiative to become a “trauma-informed city.” The group provides a 24-hour crisis response partnership with the Tempe Fire Medical Rescue and Tempe Police departments to provide on-scene emotional support and follow-up support those facing trauma.

The issue of toxic stress in children received national attention when Oprah Winfrey reported it to 60 Minutes.

“This is the reason why I came to 60 minutes, I’m always looking for the deeper meaning. This story is so important to me and, I believe, to our culture,” said Winfrey. “It has definitively changed the way I see people in the world, and it has definitively changed the way I will now be operating my school in South Africa and going forward in the philanthropic efforts I’m engaged in because it’s huge.”

Winfrey spoke with Dr. Bruce Perry, a world-leading expert on childhood trauma who treated children involved in the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings, about the effects of adverse childhood experiences on their adult lives.

According to Perry, “[kids are being wired] differently and typically in a way that makes you more vulnerable. Kids who grow up like that have much higher rates of risk for mental health problems, much higher rates of risk for doing poorly in school, [for just functioning in the world].”

The first step to helping solve the problem? Informing the public on how to handle a child who is showing behavior that could stem from trauma.

“A lot of people who are working in the philanthropic world who are trying to help disadvantaged, challenged people from a background that have been disenfranchised are working on the wrong thing,” said Winfrey. “Unless you fix the trauma that has caused people to be the way they are, literally change the way brains operate if you’re in a chaotic environment as a child, unless you fix the trauma, you’re working on the wrong thing.”

CARE 7 has also been training teachers at the Tempe Union High School District about childhood trauma and how that affects their behavior. Their goal is to challenge teachers to shift their perspective and ask “what is going on underneath behavior?”

Suzanne Pachuta, the vice principal for Tempe High School, said that CARE 7’s training was eye-opening for her.

“For many of us, it was like ‘oh my goodness, ok, now I understand, there’s more going on than just this student [being] out of their seat all the time or this student always trying to get attention from me, what’s really the heart of the matter?” said Pachuta.

According to experts, one of the simplest ways to change the narrative around childhood trauma is asking, "what happened to you?” instead of “what is wrong with you?” to children acting out.

“That was the life-changing question, that my whole senses responded to, see we go through life, we see kids who are misbehaving ‘you juvenile delinquents’ we label them. Really the question that we should be asking is not ‘what’s wrong with that child?’ but ‘what happened to that child?’  and then having the resources to be able to address what happened to you,” said Winfrey.

There is no sure way to prevent adverse childhood experiences but there is a way to help prevent it from becoming trauma: human connection.

According to Robinson, “human connections are what build resilience in children. This resilience lasts throughout life. We know that the more we’re able to connect with children and make them feel safe and allow them to know that there are individuals in their lives who are there to protect them, the more likely we are to be able to make a difference.”

“Everybody needs somebody growing up who says, ‘I believe in you, you’re ok, things are going to be all right,’ and that can be a teacher, that can be a coach, that could be somebody in Sunday school,” said Oprah. “Somebody who loved you somewhere.”

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