What it Takes to Overcome Childhood Trauma

Posted on August 9, 2018

Nearly 35 million children have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives. Trauma, such as abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction, can create hurdles that negatively impact children for their entire lives. While researchers had long suspected that certain traumas, like sexual and physical abuse, affected individuals, it was not until the late 1990s when the effects of trauma were more fully understood.

Between the years of 1995 and 1997, Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recruited participants who would take place in a long-term Adverse Childhood Experience Study. The interest in the topic was born out of the unexpected results of a previous study. In the 80s, Kaiser Permanente had been shocked to learn that 50 percent of the participants recruited for an obesity clinic had dropped out before it was completed. While dropping out was not unheard of, researchers were surprised primarily because so many of the participants who had left had achieved dramatic weight loss. This led researchers to wonder whether there might be other factors at play.

Those who left the program were later interviewed and it was discovered that most of the nearly 300 participants had dealt with sexual abuse as children. Researchers began to wonder if perhaps compulsive eating and weight gain were coping methods for traumatic experiences. This laid the groundwork for the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experience Study.

The study found that unfortunately, many children in America had experienced trauma to varying degrees. Not all of these traumatic experiences were abuse-related, however. Children with divorced parents, parents who fought often, and parents who abused drugs were also suffering from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). And, many were dealing with a combination of traumas.

The study’s findings had far-reaching implications. Not only were adverse childhood experiences leading to chronic health problems down the road, including cancer, heart disease, and shorter lifespans; they were also resulting in mental health struggles as well. And for those children who were living in poverty, in addition to enduring a chaotic family life, they were also subject to additional stressors that only served to make the situation worse and perpetuate the cycle of trauma and poverty.

Without a proper support system to help navigate with these circumstances, many children were unable to process and overcome the trauma of their past, making the transition to adulthood difficult. Many turned to drug use, while some dropped out of school entirely. Others encountered significant obstacles when trying to transition into the workforce. And, without dealing with these adverse experiences in a meaningful manner, many were unable to build genuine, long-lasting relationships in their personal lives.

But a traumatic childhood does not have to determine your entire life. And with these new studies came new insight into how we can best remedy the problem. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” And many community organizations are getting involved by empowering youth to overcome the traumas of their past through mentoring, skills building, and trauma-informed therapy. By helping to creating strong, well-adjusted, productive children, these organizations are creating a better tomorrow for the communities that they serve. Two such organizations are S+ Catalysts New Pathways for Youth and Project LIFT.

The Power of a Positive Mentor

Adverse experiences do not have to be a life-long sentence. In fact, with further research, we have learned what can be done in order to set these children up for success.

Speaking to this effect, NPR reported:

“Having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma, psychologists say.”

Since strong relationships are so vital to overcoming adverse childhood experiences, one community organization has focused their energy on providing high risk youth with positive mentors.

Since 1989, New Pathways for Youth has been providing the youth of Phoenix, Arizona with adult mentors and the tools they need to live prosperous and successful lives. Each year, the organization serves more than 500 youth, most of whom are well below the national poverty line.

Once a child is placed with a mentor, based on skills and mutual interests, the pair work together to set realistic and attainable goals. The program focuses heavily on helping these children create bonds with others while also working through their emotions in a productive way. New Pathways for Youth also offers workshops and college and career preparation, which the mentor and mentee attend together. 

Statistically speaking, four out of ten of New Pathways’ participants are likely to dropout of high school. But by providing youth with positive influences and resources early on, they are able to transform their lives, plan for their futures, and add value to their communities.

As New Pathways writes:

“All youth can make a positive impact on their community…therefore, we provide opportunities for them to see the power of their actions.”

Stronger than Trauma

In 2010, psychotherapist and certified substance abuse expert Bob Zaccheo decided to take a different approach to dealing with at risk teens. Instead of working with each child in an office setting like most psychotherapists, Zaccheo used vocational training, mentorships, and trauma-informed therapy to help teens overcome their pasts.

Originally focusing on males, Project LIFT provided participants with vocational skills that helped inject meaning and purpose into their lives. And by being a part of something bigger than themselves, the teens experienced a boost in confidence. This newfound self-esteem inspired them stay in school, stay off drugs, and become valuable members of their communities.

By helping them to find passion in something unrelated to their traumatic pasts, these teens have, in the words of one participant, learned that “you can be stronger than your trauma.”

In addition to the boys program, Project LIFT also facilitates a program for girls that offers similar vocational training, while focusing on trauma-informed therapy as a means of coping with traumatic experiences. Trauma-informed therapies help to build trust, resilience, and mindfulness in those dealing with trauma.

Whether the teens are working with a trauma-informed therapist or learning how to be mechanics by working on cars that have been donated to the organization, each is also provided with free meals and free transportation. By replacing their painful pasts with the promise of a purposeful future, Project LIFT is bringing home to many people who, in their young age, had already adopted a grim outlook on the world.

With the help of Project LIFT, along with other organizations, at risk teens not only learn skills to help them plan for their careers, they also strengthen their mental resilience so that they can make peace with their pasts. Growing up in an environment where abuse, neglect, and drug use are regular occurrences is not an easy burden to bear. But just because these youth have been exposed to adverse circumstances does not mean they are destined to perpetuate this vicious cycle. And by helping youth to heal, we create strong and prosperous futures for our communities.