by Janice Demings
“Do I think that adverse childhood experience narratives and toxic stress are the be all and end all and are going to solve almost every problem in our society? No,” declared Dr. Nadine Burke Harris at an event hosted by the Center for Youth Wellness specifically for parents and caregivers in Bayview Hunters Point.
“Do I believe deeply that understanding how early adversity affects the brains and bodies of children gives us a profound ability, additional resources and additional tools to be able to, number one, recognize and, number two, come up with solutions about some of the things that are most challenging for our kids? I do. I believe that to my core.”
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is an esteemed pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness. She emphasizes the importance of understanding the science behind Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) everywhere she goes and in everything she does. At a recent community conversation about her book, “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity,” she answered questions ranging from information about ACEs to questions about the beginning of her career.
Burke Harris began by crediting the Bayview community for helping to cultivate her initial awareness that what we experience as children has the potential to affect our long-term health and interpersonal skills. In her research, done on tadpoles at UC Berkeley with Dr. Tyrone Hayes, she was able to continue deepening her understanding of tadpoles who were under immense amounts of stress. She came to the realization that ACEs and toxic stress can be experienced by anyone, and they can also affect other species.
A panel comprised of moms from CYW’s Community Advisory Council asked her questions about specifics in the research. “While parents and caregivers cannot shield children from illness and trauma, how can they serve as buffers?” they asked.
She answers this question with a hopeful tone. She emphasizes that it is important to understand reactive steps to take along with risks. She brings up the importance of curating therapeutic moments for children, calling them “transformative” and “deeply healing.”
“In your book, you state that it’s important to put on your oxygen mask first so that you can be your best self for your children. For a parent or caregiver who is new to this information, where would you suggest they start?” Burke Harris suggests that parents start by using https://www.stresshealth.org/ to further learn about childhood adversity and toxic stress.
Once parents grasp and thoroughly understand the concepts, they are encouraged to “take their own temperature.” They do this by understanding how their own ACEs affect them now and play into their stress or sense of exhaustion.
She then wants parents to practice self-care and to journal what works for them when they need to decompress. “Self-care is not selfish,” said Dr. Burke Harris.
Burke Harris goes on to address people who claim to have no ACE score. ACE scores are based on the original 10 buckets detailed by originators of the ACE research, which does not include discrimination or witnessing external traumas on the street. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adverse_Childhood_Experiences_Study.)
“My hope is that in a generation or two generations, we will get to the point where far fewer kids will be experiencing ACEs – or kids will be experiencing fewer ACEs. Instead of it being destiny that it definitely affects your health, kids come home and we hear about what happened in the street or we think something’s going on in our household and we start to see, ‘Wow, that’s affecting my child.’
“I know what I need to do so that we can say, ‘Yes, this happened in our households and our lives, but you know what? My baby is still on track getting on the honor roll, getting ready to graduate and doesn’t have to use his inhaler. That’s what I’m excited to see.”
Burke Harris makes sure to mention that ACEs and toxic stress are stigmatized by many as a problem exclusive to lower income communities. The reality is that ACEs and toxic stress are not bound to culture or socioeconomic classes.
Everyone experiences their effects. Burke Harris even goes so far as stating that the reason it’s commonly ignored in upper income communities is because many are afraid of damaging their reputation.
During the panel, a concern arose. While Burke Harris spoke extensively on the fact that the Bayview District was her eye opener for ACEs and toxic stress, it was never explicitly stated that people from lower income communities, who generally consist of Black and Brown families, are disproportionately affected by ACEs and toxic stress. It made me wonder, while she was generalizing the issue in an effort of destigmatize it, when would this point be highlighted?
Then she addressed the point: “We know that early adversity leads to biological changes for children, which we now understand to be called ‘toxic stress.’
“OK, so if we’re only solving this problem for low income Black and Brown kids, then a certain percentage of the community is going to put their support behind it and a whole bunch of folks won’t. When the folks in Congress are solving it for their children, when people are having a walk like the Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure for cancer and they’re having it for ACEs and toxic stress … I’m not talking about millions; I want to see billions of dollars put behind this.
“When we see federal level investment into ACEs and toxic stress, who do you think is going to benefit the most? The kids who experience the highest doses of adversity.
”And I believe that the precipitants, the factors that lead to toxic stress, … (in addition to) the 10 ACE factors that Kaiser and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) looked at, I also believe discrimination leads to toxic stress. I believe that separation and deportation of your family also can lead to toxic stress. And when we develop robust interventions for the treatment of toxic stress, then everyone will win, but I believe vulnerable communities will win the most.”
Then it was time for parents in the audience to have the opportunity to ask questions. Many asked about the causes and effects of ACEs and toxic stress.
Dr. Burke Harris ended the discussion on a hopeful note: “I think the big thing I want everyone here to walk away with is that, one, you all have my deepest gratitude; none of this work could be done without you. I’m looking around to every single person in this room. As I look at the faces of the folks who have been here, I think you all know this would not be possible without you.
“And as it moves forward, I think the thing that I am very excited for is to make sure that we are keeping the community voices in the work that is scaling on a national level – the thought that lends the priority about what works for every community and not just the ones who have resources.
“When I say thank you to every single person in this room, I want to include our incredible team at the Center for Youth Wellness. I want to include the women of the Giving Circle who made this event possible. I want to include every single one of you, ‘cause when we do this together – joining all the resources that we have in the room – we are powerful and we’re doing it.”
Janice Demings, already a journalist, is a high school student who calls Bayview Hunters Point home. She can be reached by contacting Lydia Vincent-White at firstname.lastname@example.org.