Our View: Help children build resiliency to reduce lasting impact of trauma

Monica Brown

By Monica Brown
Program Officer

As a colleague of mine says, “our collective goal is to help our youngest people grow into the greatest older people they can become.”

As a funder who is focused on making sure all young children are physically and emotionally healthy as they enter kindergarten, we know that the first five years of a person’s life are some of the most critical and present the greatest opportunity for learning.

Our health and our lives can be predicted by the access, or lack of access, to resources we had as children. With a focus on school readiness, we are working to ensure children have the necessary building blocks essential to accomplishing this goal, but also to improve their health and life outcomes well into adulthood.

Research shows that investing in a child’s development from the time they are born until they are 5 years old results in positive social, cognitive and economic gains well beyond childhood. Core to providing this foundation is ensuring that children are in homes, schools and other places that can support their development and ability to thrive.

However, research shows that almost half of the population will experience a traumatic event such as: witnessing a violent crime, domestic violence, terrorism/war or sexual abuse. These experiences can have an immediate and long lasting impact throughout a person’s life. How often these incidents occur, as well as the consequences, are greater for children of color and those impacted by poverty. We’ve known about the effects of early traumatic experiences since the late 1990s, when researchers conducted the now infamous Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study.  Almost two decades later, the ACE study is just as informative today in helping us understand why some children don’t see the same gains as others.

The long term effects of trauma vary based on how a person experiences the event, and how a person interprets the event. Children who are exposed to toxic stress over an extended period of time can experience a physiological impact which can negatively impact their brain development and negatively impact their health.  As we work to prevent avoidable traumatic events, it is just as important to mitigate the impact of these experiences and help children and families build resilience. The ACE study forces us to ask – what do children need to prevent or reduce the lasting impact of trauma throughout their lives?

Knowing how trauma can have such a pervasive effect on a child’s development, we need to intervene at an earlier age. However, we need to understand that there is risk involved as well as potential rewards.

Researcher Dr.Sarah Watamura describes it this way, “without the immature brain at birth how could we each have individual possibility?  If we were ‘hardwired’ like some other mammals – think of the baby giraffe that walks within minutes of being born – it wouldn’t take us 10-12 months to walk but we also wouldn’t have the ability to adapt to our varied environments.”

Knowing this provides vast opportunity to provide a rich nurturing environment for our kids and the ability to intervene when needed.

The residual effects of poverty and trauma do not have to be predictors of a child’s abilities, opportunities or quality of life. Addressing the effects of poverty and trauma by building resiliency creates the perfect opportunity for the Health Foundation to build on our previous and current investments in the health of children ages birth to 5.

We have been committed to improving and learning about children’s social and emotional health through projects such as: PEDALS and Help Me Grow, and our support of the spread of evidence based maternal and child health interventions to help us think through how our resources can continue to impact the life outcomes of our children.

We remain committed to this work and will continue to build on our existing programs and develop new ones. For our first step in this process, we’re supporting a community-wide trauma scan in western New York to give us greater insights into what our needs are as it relates to trauma interventions. We look forward to sharing the findings with community partners and to inform our future efforts.

As researcher and author Dr. Brene Brown said, “Of all the things trauma takes away from us, the worst is our willingness, or even our ability to be vulnerable. There’s a reclaiming that has to happen.”