Life is messy. Life is complicated.
My early childhood was no exception to this rule.
Nowadays, we refer to the difficult things that children experience as ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences. An ACEs score generally reflects how awful and rough a person’s childhood was due to factors like abuse, neglect, or family dysfunction (think drugs, mental illness, etc.). My ACEs score is a 5–too high.
Thankfully, though, I am not defined by my ACEs score. It has certainly shaped me–I credit my childhood to my constant need for perfectionism (it is something I can control), my desire to understand human behavior, and my drive to help and understand others.
However, despite my childhood experiences, I am resilient. Resiliency is not something that is completely understood by social scientists–why are some children more resilient than others? Why can some children live through horrible experiences and overcome them, while others succumb to the pain through drugs, crime, depression, and other cyclical behaviors?
It is not an easy question to answer. During my undergraduate coursework in psychology (my first degree), an instructor once described it as a combination of genetics and environment, imagining a cup of water:
Let’s pretend that we are all born with a certain amount of water in our cup. Due to
genetics, some people–those with a higher predisposition to mental illness–are born with more water in their cups; others, less. Once we are born, exposure to environmental factors, ACEs if you will, slowly add more water to the cup. Once the cup spills over, a person will struggle with mental health problems.
It does to me, though it still doesn’t explain resiliency. It seems that if some environmental factors can add water to the cup, certainly some positive factors can remove water from our cups, as well.
For me, it was a sense of stability that came after a very traumatic childhood event. The result was removal from my home and my mother, and an informal placement with my grandmother. I was 7 years old, nearing the end of first grade, and life changed. I still saw my mom, though she did not live with us. We lived with grandma for only a year and a half but, at the same time, my mother was seeking to improve herself and situation. As a result, when we did begin to live with her again, life was better and more stable than before (though not as as stable as with grandma, at the time).
It was not perfect–and neither was I. I struggled with an intense form of separation anxiety when we first moved out of grandma’s house and was terrified to be alone. I had stomachaches and I spent a lot of time in the nurse’s office, trying to get someone to come pick me up.
But I moved on…I chose not to let my childhood define me. I’ve let it shape who I’ve become…but it did not become who I am.
As a future teacher, I am, everyday, pushed to meet kids with empathy and understand their complicated situations as a result of my own childhood. But, more than anything, I desire to help provide a sense of stability, in one way or another, to help the child with a high ACEs score–after all, who knows if that sense of stability will later translate into a lifetime of resiliency?
What do you think?
I like your “glass analogy” very much, it explains very well why some people can develop mental illness quicker.
Thanks! I did not come up with it, but it is one analogy that has stuck with me throughout the years!
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Really fascinating post! I think about these issues and questions a lot because of my son, adopted at age 8 from Ethiopia. It’s so interesting to me how differently different people respond to extreme trauma. Here are two books you might like. For teaching, Heather Forbes’s Help for Billy is a very practical look at what happens in the brains of traumatized children (so they process differently and react to stress differently) with tons of tips for what to do to respond effectively, calm the stress level, and help them regulate. How I wish my son’s teachers would read this book! Bruce Perry’s The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog is sometimes really bleak but ultimately hopeful–stories of children he’s seen in his practice who experienced extreme childhood trauma but only one child in the whole book isn’t able to heal. Inspiring!
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I will definitely have to look into those books! One of my favorite things to do is study that point where psychology and education intersect–and it really is such a vast area!
I imagine it is hard, as an adoptive parent, to wonder what your child’s early life was like–good or bad. I know there is some interesting research out there on critical and sensitive periods, which have been expanded to include periods throughout development, and not just the first three years (which was sort of the “traditional” way of thinking due brain synapse growth). It seems that, if a child has a sense of support, even if it is just one individual, that child’s confidence and sense of self-worth explodes–which translates into the resiliency that we see in some children who have had challenging early childhood experiences. It is such a combination of nature and nurture!