For a growing number of educators, researchers and advocates, helping children and families heal from child trauma means talking about a subject that makes many Americans uncomfortable: racism.
In recent years, the idea of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has gained traction in child-serving organizations as a way to understand behavioral issues and poor health outcomes faced by children with traumatic life experiences, such as abuse, neglect or household dysfunction, like having an incarcerated parent. The growth of trauma-informed services is part of a continuing push to help children overcome these experiences.
But some advocates say that until communities and individuals contend with historical trauma — the psychological result of repeatedly experiencing discrimination, both personally and across generations — efforts to blunt the impact of childhood trauma may come up short.
At a recent conference organized by Echo Parenting and Education on healing from social and historical trauma, California Endowment President and CEO Robert Ross described the central role of childhood trauma to understanding health issues like depression, smoking and drug abuse as well as high rates of incarceration.
“When you follow the breadcrumbs to the origins of all these conditions, where does it lead you to? Childhood trauma,” Ross said. “So how our nation figures out and how our communities figure out how to recognize trauma when it shows up and responds — not just on a provider-to-a-patient-basis but systemically — is the public health challenge of our time.”
Like others at the conference, he noted the persistently high rates of health disparities and overrepresentation in the justice system for communities of color.
Discrimination has played a part in contributing to child trauma, many speakers said, both in terms of policies like segregation and in the internalized racism and daily macroaggressions that cause emotional stress.
Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, co-founder and community health director for the RYSE Youth Center in Richmond, Calif., said that popular frameworks to measure childhood trauma, like the ACEs questionnaire, don’t take into account the role of racism and its impact over many generations.
“[Models of] trauma, toxic stress and ACEs start at birth,” Dhaliwal said in an interview with The Imprint. “But we what we know from epigenetics, implicit bias science, microagression science — all that research coming out today — says that before we are even born, there are things that are causing our body to shift to cope with the distress happening in our society.
“How do we actually move the meter so that the definitions of trauma and toxic stress are really grounded in that historical and structural frame and don’t just start with the health outcomes [associated with ACEs]. Those are all also important, but we are trying to make sure that we complicate and broaden how we articulate and understand trauma.”
According to Echo Parenting Co-Executive Director Louise Godbold, the focus on social and historical trauma at the organization’s Changing the Paradigm conference was part of an effort to respond to community members hoping to more deeply engage with the legacy of racism and healing in a space devoted to child trauma. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit conducts parenting classes and supports trauma-informed practices for educators and other service providers.
The two-day conference on healing from social and historical trauma saw researchers, advocates and other experts discuss ways to acknowledge the impact of racism on children and families and showcase strategies aimed at promoting community-level healing and resiliency building.
Asadah Kirkland, an educator who has written about black parenting and corporal punishment, said that enduring negative stereotypes of black children have affected the way they are perceived by society and even their own parents.
“If you were born in America, you were raised to look at black children as less than other children, as dehumanized,” Kirkland said. That has led to a normalization of violence in many families, she said.
Now, Kirkland works with parents to avoid using violence to punish their children and helps them identify patterns of parenting behavior that can stretch back generations. She has created a parental code of ethics that helps parents that can create a positive legacy for children.
“We need to raise our skills and not our hands,” Kirkland said