Many people and organizations focus on preventing violence with the belief that if our society can stop violence against children, then most childhood trauma will be eradicated.
However, research that has emerged over the last 20 years clearly shows that focusing primarily on violence prevention – physical and sexual abuse, in particular – doesn’t eliminate the trauma that children experience, and won’t even prevent further violence.
“Although violence can beget violence, it’s hardly the only cause of violence,” says Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principal investigator of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), groundbreaking epidemiological research that showed a direct link between 10 types of childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, among many other consequences.
“Basically there’s lots of other ways,” he says. “Humiliating people. Isolating people. Verbally provoking them. All of those have potential for producing violence in response.”
In addition, violence can provoke nonviolent behavior that can be just as damaging as violence.
In other words, childhood trauma does not equal only violence.
The many types of childhood trauma
Violence is just one among many types of childhood trauma. The ACE Study found that violence is not more – or less — damaging than divorce, living with a parent who’s an alcoholic, being yelled at nearly every day of your childhood, or emotional neglect. Just as important, it rarely happens alone. If a child is experiencing violence, there’s usually some other type of trauma happening, too.
In fact, the entire approach to preventing violence against children – by focusing on only one type of trauma, by focusing on the child and ignoring the parents or caregivers, by ignoring the toxic stress imposed on the child and family by traumatizing systems – is so outdated that pioneers in this arena compare our current approach to a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole.
They propose a completely different approach, one that focuses on creating and growing resilient children, families, organizations, systems and communities. It’s an approach that moves from blame, shame and punishment, to understanding, nurturing and healing.
The ACE Study is part of what’s being called a “unified science” of human development that recasts our understanding of how to solve our most intractable problems, such as poverty and homelessness, as well as childhood trauma. It comprises five areas of research:
- the epidemiology of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs),
- the neurobiology of toxic stress (the brain),
- the biomedical consequences of toxic stress (the body),
- the epigenetic consequences of toxic stress (passing from parent to child),
- and resilience research.
Others call this “the theory of everything” in human development or NEAR science (neurobiology, epigenetics, ACEs, resilience). I just call it ACEs science.