How Vladimir Putin’s childhood is affecting us all

Examine Vladimir Putin’s childhood and you will see an eerie parallel to the atrocities playing out in Ukraine today. His life is a stark example of how childhood adversity is the root cause of most social, economic and mental health issues, as well as violence and chronic disease, as the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences demonstrates.

And while we can’t change the Russian president, we can encourage and educate people not to create more Putins by recognizing how childhood adversity impacts us throughout our lives and by integrating solutions into our healthcare, education, justice and economic systems.

Born in 1952 Leningrad, Putin was a street kid in a city devastated by a horrific, three-year siege by the Nazis during WWII, a genocide described as the world’s most destructive siege of a city. Most of the population of three million people died, one million starving to death. Putin’s father was badly injured in the war, his mother nearly died of starvation. Living in a rat-infested apartment with two other families, the family had no hot water, no bathtub, a broken-down toilet, little or no heat. His father worked in a factory; his mother did odd jobs she could find. A small child, whose two older siblings are believed to have been lost to war and disease, Putin was left to fend for himself, severely bullied by other children.

From his parents he inherited their wartime trauma personified by Nazi forces threatening their existence, ravaging their city and killing their friends and family. With his parents struggling to survive, they were absent or too traumatized to be attentive to their son. There’s no mention of other family members: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Kindness and affection didn’t seem to have been part of the child Putin’s world.

While the experiences of childhood adversity piled up, two positive experiences changed his trajectory: After years of being labeled a troublemaker in school, a sixth-grade teacher helped him realize his potential. He excelled in high school, learned judo to defend himself, got a law degree and was selected to join the KGB. But the damage that led to his current behavior was done. It produced a machismo man, distrustful and unpredictable, and who cultivates disinformation to advance his own agenda at any cost. 

In her essay, The Ignorance or How We Produce the Evil,” psychologist Alice Miller wrote: “Children who are given love, respect, understanding, kindness and warmth will naturally develop different characteristics from those who experience neglect, contempt, violence or abuse and never have anyone they can turn to for kindness and affection. Such absence of trust and love is a common denominator….All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty, although they themselves steadfastly denied this.”

Research shows that early abuse and neglect damages an infant’s developing brain. If a child suffers abuse and neglect for years without intervention, the consequences can be dire. As Dr. Bruce Perry, co-author with Oprah Winfrey of What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing, says, the more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely they will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.” 

But without that love in their childhoods, abused people in power can do serious damage. Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedung all suffered years of merciless beatings and other unconscionable abuse in childhood and went on to be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. In Mao’s case, 35 million people. Of course, dictators can’t become dictators absent an environment that supports their ability to accumulate power. In The Real War, Richard Nixon pointed out that the “Darwinian forces of the Soviet system produce not only ruthless leaders, but clever ones.” Stalin killed nearly a million people each year he was in power; in 1938 he sent Khrushchev to Ukraine where he proved his ruthless ways by eliminating 163 out of 166 members of that country’s Central Committee. Of course, not everyone who has an abusive childhood grows up to abuse others; but it’s safe to say that all abusive dictators and autocrats had a childhood filled with abuse and/or neglect, and not enough love. 

So, Putin’s statements on and after Feb. 23, are chilling and revealing: “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by

the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and deNazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”

In light of his childhood, this confusing statement about “deNazifying” Ukraine—a country whose president is Jewish—and defending against genocide makes sense. In Putin’s mind, he feels threatened by Ukraine and considers himself a victim. He must defend himself, just the way he did by learning judo as a child. He’s acting out the suffering, deprivations and existential threats experienced by his family and community during WWII, experiences buried so deep in his mind that he’s not even conscious of them. And he is now inflicting those same circumstances on families in the cities of Ukraine.

Dr. Sandra Bloom, a psychiatrist and expert in the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences at Drexel University and founder of the Sanctuary Model and Creating PRESENCE, notes that unless people resolve their early experiences and heal, they are doomed to repeat their childhoods. However unconscious that may be to Putin, it’s painfully obvious to the rest of us. 

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If you’re interested in becoming more involved in the PACEs science community, join our companion social network, PACEs Connection. Just go to PACEsConnection.com and click “Join”. PACEsConnection.com is the leading advocate for information about the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs) and the rapidly expanding, global PACEs science movement. 

65 responses

  1. I think I made a choice somewhere along the line when I was being raised. I came from an abusive mother and at least a partially supportive father.
    The thing I remember most about my mother is her telling me over and over again that “I would never amount to anything “… repeatedly and over. Several times a day.
    I turned out okay, but I had the support of my father. And of others along the way. And that definitely made a difference.
    I just don’t think Putin is capable of empathy or compassion. For multiple reasons, he just doesn’t have it in him.
    And I guess I don’t believe you can will yourself to care for others.

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  2. One can certainly find credence in his childhood, but it is just that, his childhood. He has proved to others and himself that he is someone to be reckoned with! Using this power correctly however is the essence of maturity, something in his many years he doesn’t have! He is infantile in his execution of his office and responsibility! He is not someone to be excused or to be looked up to! He is an embarrassment to the Russian people and indeed to the World’s leaders! An individual that is allowed to conduct himself in such a way without immediate accountability to the World Leaders and in turn their respective societies tells me that there is no control and anything goes, human life is cheap at the hands of fragile Ego maniacs! Where are the proverbial balls of the Senior membership of the Kremlin, if in agreement of his actions, then it is indeed not just Putin to blame, is it?

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  4. I agree that the horrific ways Puton is dealing with things and the things he is inflicting on poor innocent women and children is inexcusable however, I often wonder if anyone had ever thought about the possibility of it making a difference and maybe even helping puton to stop this crazyness he is inflicting and directly to take the time to address his past pain and the horrible things he went through as a child. Acknowledgment of his hurt, loneliness, trauma, abuse, poverty, being bullied, etc etc etc on an actual genuine human level of concern?

    Please don’t take this the wrong way or twist my narrative in some way! I’m just saying maybe Putin just deep inside needs for someone to take the time to show him love and concern like we are or should be to all those suffering in Ukraine! Maybe this idea is not one that is or would ever be possible I don’t know? Meaning maybe it’s that there is no one who would ever dare to have that kind of a conversation with puton or is close enough to him In some kind of a personal relationship/him liking anyone personally enough for them to even dare to do that I don’t know I guess abd maybe that’s why no one ever has? I mean to me it’s pretty obvious that no amount of money, no # of his own people being killed, no amount of military equipment destroyed, no less staff in his home or government being gone or fired, no regards for family members wife or children to worry about, I mean really for him a win Simply means being able to say, I will infact have all things the world and it’s leaders said I I couldn’t or would never be able to have, even if I only have it for a brief moment or least long enough that the world will have no choice but to acknowledge that I had it and that’s all he needs period! For him that’s the ultimate win and my belief is that once he is able to put loud say with proof that look world I have all these cities and land I promised I would he could care less wether he lives or dies because he won in his eyes and mind so death and that point will be no big deal to him! I don’t know this is all just my own perspective and thoughts behind his craziness and is likely off the wall but wanted to at least share it with someone so there ya go.

    Sincerely
    Me

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  5. Pingback: Inte en Putin till | RSMH-bloggen

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  7. Pingback: How Vladimir Putin’s childhood is affecting us all – ACEs Too High – Bullies and Bullets

    • Haven’t you seen the video of the Russian Orthodox priests blessing Putin’s troops? Putin already has God on his side!

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  8. Jane, thank you for your very touching and thought provoking article. I was born HS and had terrible ACEs, perhaps the worst of them self-inflicted due to overthinking in the aftermath. And I too inflicted ACEs, specially to one of my children, “the rebel”. One time I fled from home to protect my family, totally bewildered and lost as to how I had reacted. To say I feel responsible and guilty for life is the least.

    Since then I have spent a lot of time reading, listening and practicing contemplation. Thinking of ways I could possibly compensate for my actions and words, heal and support my child, heal the present and past and look forward. I still don’t know how to transform lessons painfully learned into efforts for preventing the same thing from happening to other vulnerable kids. Remember the story of the old indian warrior talking to his grandson? “Inside each and every one of us, lives a bad wolf and a good wolf, who are fighting fiercely” “And who wins the fight grandpa?” “The one you feed”.

    My eyes run uncontrollably like waterfalls almost without blinking, every time I read about a new high school shooting. Thinking about the unnecessary waste of life, the victims, their families, the family of the perpetrator, and even the perpetrator. I shake my head in disbelief when I read about the “all out” efforts, Think Tank and University analyses and reports included, more aimed at identifying and putting away the would-be-culprit in time, and stopping the tragedy. Indeed a very complex subject. I think that would be a necessary strategy. What about also thinking up some efforts to identify in time and give “ACEd out kids” some love, attention and support, resilience skills, which they might not have got at home? Help them transform trauma into excelling at some sport or ability, instead of feeding passive “revenge” craving?

    Hopefully 8-9 mass shooting cases out of 10 could perhaps be solved like this. Somehow find out which kids are more at risk: patchwork families with alcoholic, jobless, socially inept, promiscuous, eventually violent parents? Searching for a balance between protecting privacy and still being able to sieve out the potential mass shooter and give support, not jail?

    This would be a costly measure, but surely less costly for society than the results of shootings.

    I never cease to wonder at people’s comments “the day after”, even close relatives: “I would have never thought this kid was capable of doing this; there were no signs that something was wrong”

    Putin is an “ACEd out kid” with dark emotions, who got hold not of a gun but of the command of arguably the largest army in the world. Talk about a mass shooting.

    Thanks again Jane.

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    • Here’s an article I wrote about Jim Sporleder and how he and his staff transformed Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA. Many schools are integrating PACEs science. We have a long way to go, but there’s no turning back now.

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  9. MAR.20,2022, I TOO LIKE PUTIN CAME FROM A BAD CHILDHOOD, A BROKEN HOME. LIKE RUSSIA, AMERICA FULL OF CORRUPTION, LIES, VIOLENCE, RACISM, ETC. SURE I CAME FROM A SCREWED UP LIFE BUT UNLIKE PUTIN, I NEVER BULLIED NOR SLAUGHTERED PEOPLE LIKE THAT! PUTIN IS PLAYING GOD TO PUNISH WORLD WITH NUKES.

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    • people that didn’t have much love in their lives and had persistent abuse but learned to become charming can become powerful and unconsciously play their hate back to others. Not all abused people perpetuate the hate… hopefully, you had at least one grown-up that loved you and made you realize that you were special.

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  13. Very powerful and thought provoking piece Jane. Thank you for taking the time to research and write this when so many are trying to make sense of what is happening in Ukraine.

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  16. These articles are thought provoking, and begs the question of why is the focus so much on putin , and not the politburo, and the political machine of Russia
    Who for decades since demise of the USSR ,
    Have been looking on the global arena, and seeing
    The west brutalities on Iraq , Yemen , Libya , Palestinians genocide and endless wars ?!!!
    Should not analysis of this leaders be brought into questions too ?!!!!
    I am opposed to war ,

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I know abusive people whose parents tried everything to help their violent children. They got help from professionals, family, friends, teachers, etc. Nothing worked. It can’t always be blamed on the parents. Working in the social services, I know of parents who gave up violent children to be wards of the state. They were afraid for their lives and afraid for the lives of their other children. I have been told “Genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.” In a few cases, the genetic gun is loaded so heavily that the best families cannot stop a child from going bad. Most people disagree with me, stating that nobody is born bad. I think maybe two percent of people are born to be violent and no interventions can turn the tide.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susan Hilde, I agree with you. Others can get a sense of people like this by reading books by Martha Stout like “The Sociopath Next Door” , or watching the movie “Unfit” by the organization Duty to Warn.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I have the genetics (it runs in the family), I had the abuse. It takes tremendous effort to not give in to the anger. And even more to banish it. It can be done. Leary’s experiments showed the way.

      BTW the parents almost always trigger the PTSD with some form of child abuse. I never met an angry one who wasn’t abused. Mostly the parents, but sometimes, outside agents. Outsiders get all the press. It is relatively rare. Parents.

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  18. Others writers mention that Putin’s father lived through WW 1 as a child in a district where “everyone was starving”. Putin said in his memoir that his father was characteristically a “silent man” who, after a spell in the navy, served in WW2 in a “sabotage battalion behind enemy lines”.

    Wikipedia: “[Putin’s] father was a conscript in the Soviet Navy, serving in the submarine fleet in the early 1930s. Early in World War II, his father served in the Destruction Battalion of the NKVD”

    Putin senior had much to be silent about. The NKVD of course was the secret-police/ideology-enforcement forerunner of the KGB. Its wartime Destroyer/Terminator units were an infamous “mopping up” and occupation-force in Finland, the Baltic countries and parts of Ukraine, Bulgaria, Belorus. (Later, Estonia formally declared them guilty of war crimes.)

    Here are their official instructions for imposing military and ideological control after invasion: Plainly these are meant for an occupying force, not saboteurs…
    “In every village and settlement, the destruction battalion has a number of tasks in addition to directly breaking the enemy. With bolshevist grimness, everybody who imparts provocational rumours or generates panic, must be extirpated. Everybody, who directly or indirectly helps the enemy, must be found out and exterminated.”

    Obviously, any “Terminator” soldier who showed the slightest reluctance would be executed out of hand the same way. How does a man come back from being that brutal (and that terrified?) to find his sons dead of starvation (!) and disease — and then go on a few years later to raise a late, lone new baby (Vladimir Putin)?

    As for Putin beating a class of 100 to get into the KGB — well, it wasn’t all brains. He had impeccable family connections. An apt career choice to prove you’re as hard as the old man.

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  22. Putin either putting must stop his wrong philosophy and attitude to determine what he has done to the life span of the innocent people in Ukraine.
    The two Presidents must come to the round table and stop this war .
    However, Putin are not performing a good leadership in his own country Russia and according to his childhood in the beginning.
    But Putin must know the hardest thing and way that he himself with his only parent have face constraints whilst through the inspiration of the Almighty God, the Lord God Almighty has served him frequently and appointed Putting to become a Leader as a President to his country in Russia.
    And for that reason Putin are nobody to the God’s kingdom.
    Putin can saw his strength to destroy people’s lives on earth but not in heaven.
    Your sins will not forgiven all the days of your spiritual life when you die.
    You have a case to answer and the judgment is awaiting for you in heavenly kingdom 🙏.

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  23. Really support your view that kid learn from their experience but not from words. It’s really true and parents like us need to be aware anytime when we are facing our little kids, especially when they are so naughty that no words can stop their non sense behaviours. Childhood with violence and humiliation would only create future devil. It’s easy understanding. Yet we’ll need more better ways and skills to manage our emotions as parent when handling the child when they are out of control. Cheers

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  24. Excellent and very informative…it is so very sad to witness innocent people being the recipients of one mad man who has played out his evil his entire life. He has no feelings for other humans besides hate. He has reached the point of no return..I don’t think he will live very much longer as the world wants him stopped BUT how many more people will be killed at his threat of nuclear war on any and all countries that try to stop him.

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  25. I sometimes wonder how much immense long-term suffering might have been prevented had the parent(s) of a future tyrant received, as high school students, some crucial child development science education by way of mandatory curriculum. After all, dysfunctional and/or abusive parents, for example, may not have had the chance to be anything else due to their lack of such education and their own dysfunctional/abusive rearing as children. If nothing else, such curriculum could offer students an idea/clue as to whether they’re emotionally suited for the immense responsibility and strains of parenthood.

    Regardless, countless people will procreate regardless of their questionable ability to raise their children in a psychologically functional/healthy manner. Being free nations, society cannot prevent anyone from bearing children; society can, however, educate all young people for the most important job ever, even those high-schoolers who plan to remain childless. …

    If physically survived, emotional and/or psychological trauma from unhindered toxic abuse usually results in a helpless child’s brain improperly developing. If allowed to continue for a prolonged period, it can act as a starting point into a life in which the brain uncontrollably releases potentially damaging levels of inflammation-promoting stress hormones and chemicals, even in non-stressful daily routines. I consider it a form of non-physical-impact brain damage.

    The lasting mental pain is very formidable yet invisibly confined to inside one’s head. It is solitarily suffered, unlike an openly visible physical disability or condition, which tends to elicit sympathy/empathy from others. It can make every day a mental ordeal, unless the turmoil is treated with some form of medicating, either prescribed or illicit.

    Owing to the Only If It’s In My Own Back Yard mindset, however, the prevailing collective attitude (implicit or subconscious) basically follows: ‘Why should I care — my kids are alright?’ or ‘What is in it for me, the taxpayer, if I support programs for other people’s troubled families?’ While some people will justify it as a normal thus moral human evolutionary function, the self-serving OIIIMOBY can debilitate social progress, even when social progress is most needed. And it seems this distinct form of societal penny wisdom but pound foolishness is a very unfortunate human characteristic that’s likely with us to stay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A few decades ago I learned from two Latter Day Saints missionaries that their church’s doctrine teaches that the biblical ‘lake of fire’ meant for the truly wicked actually represents an eternal spiritual burning of guilt over one’s corporeal misdeeds. Accordingly, I concluded, upon an atrocity-committing monster’s physical death, not only would he (or she) be 100 percent liberated from the anger and hate that blighted his physical life; also, his spirit or consciousness would be forced to exist with the presumably unwanted awareness of the mindbogglingly immense amount of needless suffering he personally had caused.

      I believe that the human soul may be inherently good, on its own; however, trapped within the physical body, notably the corruptible brain, oftentimes the soul’s purity may not be able to shine through. While the heart may be what keeps the soul grounded in this physical world, I believe that it is the brain and any structural or chemical-imbalance flaws within that, unfortunately, essentially defines one’s character/behavior while the soul is confined within the bodily form.

      It may be the case that the worst mass-atrocity-committing people throughout history had been thoroughly corrupted by a seriously flawed cerebral structure thus mind (or state of mind). Though, admittedly, that would be, even if true, no consolation to their countless brutalized victims.

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    • The Absolute First Rule – give up the Permanent Anger.
      The Absolute Second Rule – stop Lying – to yourself – to others

      Addiction is a symptom of PTSD says Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine Eric Kandel in his book, “The Disordered Mind.”

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  26. Interesting, I do and I don’t agree, and I am by no means an expert in psychology. I feel it necessary however to point out, after having met many people the world over, some in less fortunate countries, that I have met “putin style” people from pristine backgrounds and on the other end, “mother theresa” style people who have had it really hard. I think this may explain part of the issue, but not all of it.

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    • You make me laugh reading your article. In how many ways right now we teach our children with violent movies and games how to create millions of Putin?

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  27. Putin has forced foreigners to test for HIV and syphilis since dec 2021! Could the reason be that he is suffering from tertiary syphilis explaining his erratic behaviour?
    Anders Löfqvist
    dr.med.

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  28. Pingback: Russia and Ukraine: Is it wrong to call Vladimir Putin evil? | Opinion Jennifer Graham — Deseret – All – Romulan News Channel

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  31. I wish you had a broader platform for your excellent analyses of the connection between
    adverse childhood experiences and their long term effects on a person’s character, temperament and personality.

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  32. Very good information. I am also curious as to why Europe, the US and Ukraine did not negotiate a treaty with Russia and Putin to not bring Ukraine into NATO, and for Russia to not try to annex or militarily be involved in Ukraine. And if they did break the treaty, Ukraine would be granted NATO membership quickly. What would we have had to lose by doing that? This could have been done a long time ago. Since Putin is mentally disturbed, why provoke his paranoia, and why provoke his sense of betrayal that has a bit of historical truth to it. Now we see the results of not having an appropriate written agreement between these parties. We cannot say that he would have invaded Ukraine anyway. The US may also have left over politicians and Generals with the old Cold War attitude and deceptions, and propaganda that is not helpful anymore. My perspective is informed by having been the product of lies and propaganda about Vietnam, and I was in combat there. The US does not have a good record in terms of causing millions of deaths and destruction in other countries, particularly Iraq and Vietnam, and to a lesser degree other countries also. What mental disorders caused these brutal acts of aggression? That one is a little harder to diagnose.

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  33. Thank you for this clear analysis. German sociologist Sven Fuchs has written an eye opening book named “Die Kindheit ist politisch!” (Childhood is political!), digging into the childhood of many other politicians (including Putin) – maybe you want to exchange views : his blog is kriegsursachen dot blogspot com.

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  34. I appreciate the role that ACEs play in shaping personality, but there are plenty of people who had tons of ACEs, and instead, choose a different path. Some like myself become healers.

    As a neuroscientist, we can’t forget that specific parts of the brain regulate empathy (for example the anterior insular cortex), and that psychopaths show differences in sizes of those areas (meaning underdevelopment). These areas can also be injured later in life, due to toxins or pathogens.

    So I respectfully disagree. Some people are born bad. There can be epigenetic causes that determine whether the empathy circuits work, or toxins/pathogens in utero that can arrest the development of specific areas.

    If you have plenty of ACEs, and yet you make a conscious choice to work on you and not harm others (in the way you’ve been harmed), you can experience post traumatic growth, and contribute positively to the world.

    But some people w/ACEs don’t think they need help (or their ego is too fragile to admit it), and they just pass their pain along to others.

    Either way you have a choice about your legacy in this world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • People that have been emotionally abused usually abuse their children. If they work to avoid abusing their children by keeping their anger inside they become depressed people.,

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    • Dr. Huang, Are you suggesting that anyone born with a deficient anterior insular cortex or a damaged empathy circuits is “bad”?? Do we remove them from society? Do we imprison them because the “might” do something bad due to actually “being born bad”? Is there ever a person with these deficiencies who leads a perfectly “good” life? And if so, what is it more than a tendency? I think it is exceedingly dangerous and foolish to dismiss someone as “bad” from birth.

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      • I’m not labeling anyone as good or bad. But if you have damaged empathy circuits (as seen with psychopaths), these people don’t seek help to change, and don’t believe they need to. And if they did, traditional Western medicine doesn’t have a way to address the problem. Experts in the field of psychopathy don’t believe there is anything that can be done.

        Liked by 1 person

  35. Jane,
    Thanks for this thoughtful, insightful analysis. Of course it begs the question, how does one restrain such mania and its incredible danger for others? What are the rational and effective interventions — even now — to restrain Putin? I don’t have nor expect a simple answer…but with compassion one must ask such questions. Your thoughts? Warm regards, Vic

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    • I’m not educated in the ways of diplomacy or arm-twisting or whatever happens at that level where world leaders work things out. The only thing I can work for is a society that integrates policies and practices based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences so that people can’t gain a foothold into autocracy. It’s actually pretty much up to us, isn’t it? With the worldwide reaction to Putin, I have great hope that we’re on our way.

      Liked by 1 person

    • There must be a broad movement for a legal ban of child corporal punishment in every country in the world to establish peace right at the foundations of a society. There are many initiatives out there led by UNICEF, WHO, endcorporalpunishment.org , end-violence.org , whitehand.org – and for the USA the hashtag #ratifycrc seems to be the one for discussing this issue on social media platforms …

      Liked by 1 person

    • The title of the article caught my attention because I am familiar with ACEs research through my work with virtue-resources for child caregivers. In response to your question about effective interventions, I refer you to the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. It offers a free certification program called The Brain Story. They want to spread the word so health care providers and others can can stop ACEs. They have the tools to help do it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the suggestion, Vera. The folks at Palix Foundation are friends. The sister social network to ACEsTooHigh.com is PACEsConnection.com, where there’s lots of information about interventions, for humans between pre-birth to death.

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