In a recent speech about child abuse, Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté gave the example of using an electric extension cord as “so-called discipline.” He called this abuse a problem for our communities: “When abuse is normalized, kids who were abused grow up to be abusers.”
Study after study tells us that this kind of bullying in the name of discipline is leading to the high level of violence and child maltreatment experienced in this country. 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 homemade 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 percent of children in the U.S. who experience significant trauma due to maltreatment and exposure to violence before the age of 5.
We do not accept that this percentage is a given. This kind of childhood 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.
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We have known this to be scientifically true since the 1990s, when a California physician and the National Institutes of Health collaborated in a study of adverse experiences during childhood and how those experiences affect lifelong physical and emotional health. The adverse experiences studied fell into 10 categories, ranging from verbal abuse to having an alcoholic or drug-abusing family member.
, 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 10 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 caused by violence and maltreatment during childhood are not only predictable but wholly preventable. Children aren’t born with toxic stress. We cause stress to become toxic in children’s lives by how we treat them, often with the best of intentions, but with few of the essential skills of healthy parenting.
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.
On this Mothers’ Day, reach out and love a caring, supportive and protective mom. — the priceless gift that never grows old.
Psychologist Jerry L. Wyckoff and parent educator and journalist Barbara C. Unell are co-authors of six books, including “Discipline with Love and Limits.” Unell lives in Leawood, and Wyckoff lives in Prairie Village. For more information, visit www.Raisedwithloveandlimits.com and on Facebook and Twitter at Raisedwithloveandlimits.