Nearly half of children experience trauma, creating potential for woeful outcomes when they grow up
Alcohol or drug abuse, neighborhood violence and mental illness within families were commonly reported in each state.
Kids in Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey were the least likely to have experienced the adverse events the surveyed examined — 60 percent never had those experiences. On the other hand, Oklahoma kids were in the top quartile for each of them. For kids in Washington, D.C., neighborhood violence came in second only to economic hardship.
Among adolescents ages 12-17, in Mississippi, 15 percent witnessed domestic violence at home, while in Maine close to 1 in 5 lived with someone who had mental illness. More than one-fourth of Arizona children have lived with someone who abuses alcohol or drugs, while in Kentucky 15 percent have lived with a guardian who did jail time.
"We all have ACEs. What impacts one child severely may be no big deal to another," said Carrie Krawiec, a family therapist in Troy, Michigan, who was not involved in this research. "Genetics/biology/temperament plays one part in how a person manages difficult challenges, but in my practice I have realized another is how a person 'narrates' their life. If a person's story sounds like 'nothing good ever happens to me' or 'life is too hard,' then that storyline impacts their mood — and their future."
Someone who sees their life in a more positive or empowered light will feel better about it and the future, she said, including people who feel they overcame challenges or grew because of an experience.
"I think it is important to recognize that ACEs or trauma are different for each person. Some people may only have severe symptoms after suffering something incredible like a rape, whereas others may be troubled by a severe storm or a bad dream," she said. "... Some people may have many subtle tremors through their life, like lots of bullying or verbal abuse and some may have one big, earth-shattering event."
"Children growing up use their experiences to make sense of the world around them. They might learn adaptive behaviors to survive, so to speak," said Brian Donovan, a marriage and family therapist in Grand Terrace, California, also not part of the research. "When they grow up, they can sometimes carry these maladaptive behaviors into their own lives."
He describes clients who saw or experienced abuse at home and learned if they shared their feelings, they'd be hit.
"Now, as adults, they may use some of these same behaviors in their relationships," he said. "They hold things back from their spouse because they are afraid of their spouse's reaction."
Donovan said childhood experiences can contribute to anxiety, fear and depression and may lead to substance abuse or eating disorders in some people.
They are not insurmountable, he said.
"Human beings are incredibly resilient and very capable of overcoming problems from their past," he said. "... It is important that individuals do not blame their problems or issues on parents or past experiences."
In counseling sessions, he talks with adults about ACEs in their pasts to get insight and to help them move forward, but not to excuse problem behaviors that resulted.
Kramer said parents especially have power to intervene and help manage the impact early. One theory of substance abuse, for example, suggests some people are born with a gene that predisposes them, but certain environments activate it. Parents who know that may help their children avoid circumstances likely to activate addiction.
The report, which was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says pediatricians, juvenile justice court and school staffs all need more training to intervene effectively.
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