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Early traumatic experiences condition children to normalise stress and terror

On January 24, Rona Mackay MSP spoke at the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) debate in the Scottish Parliament. 

I thank Gail Ross for bringing this vital and timely debate to the chamber. Earlier this month I hosted an event to screen a film called “Resilience”, which highlights the ACEs initiative. It was my second time of viewing the film and it probably hit me even harder than the first time, as I picked up on more and more of its astonishing content.

That sell-out film took Scotland by storm in 2017. It features the research of a pioneering doctor called Nadine Burke Harris, who works in America with children who are primarily, but not always, from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a former children’s panel member, I have seen children thrive when they were taken out of hostile environments. I knew that it happened, but I did not really know why. Now I know, and it is like finding the final piece of a jigsaw.

It is important to remember that the ACEs initiative is based on scientific evidence, not academic theories. Altered responses to stress lead to physical changes in the way that the brain develops, as Gail Ross described. I urge everyone to examine the evidence and the research that has been done on the subject; it is truly revolutionary and could shape the way that we deal with disadvantaged young people for generations to come.

The psychological and scientific communities are in agreement about the harmful impact of ACEs. When someone is subjected to any kind of abuse, neglect or household adversity through their childhood, they often continue to suffer the consequences far into adulthood. In other words, for each traumatic experience that a child has, such as domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, addicted parents, neglect and more, the higher their ACE score is and the more they will be affected.

Early traumatic experiences condition children to normalise stress and terror. That is called toxic stress. Children who experience ACEs are more likely to self-harm or attempt to commit suicide as adults. Unlike other children of their age, children with multiple ACEs are not worried about an upcoming exam—they are worried about how they will get their next meal or whether they will be safe at home. In short, they are worried about their own survival, day to day.

The eminent research scientist and ACEs pioneer Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, who Gail Ross mentioned, reports that those prolonged emotions

“change the way the body functions.”

That impacts on the quality of their lives and their overall life expectancy.

We want Scotland to be the best place in the world for children to grow up in, so we need to take action to get all our young people, whatever they have experienced, help and emotional healing. Children with a high ACE score are not doomed if they receive the correct care and understanding. In the film “Resilience”, we hear from a professional who says:

“If we want to improve the lives of our children we have to transform the lives of those caring for them.”

A lot of knowledge is already out there about ACEs. As ever, Scotland’s wonderful children’s organisations, such as Children 1st and Barnardo’s, among many others, are right at the forefront of how we deal with affected youngsters. However, we need to ensure that teachers and social workers receive training about ACEs, how to recognise the behaviour of a child who is affected, and how to respond to their needs.

We can also begin to spread awareness about the commonality of ACEs in childhood so that those who are suffering do not feel isolated. A major conference that will take place in Glasgow in September will be an amazing forum in which to spread the word. That is testament to the will and determination of all those who work passionately in the field.

Any efforts to help those children and adults are an investment in the future of Scotland. Let us make Scotland a beacon for the rest of the world in dealing with ACEs, because we can do that.


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