On Sunday, March 11, “trauma” finally moved front and center during the highly-rated 60 Minutes. For over 13 minutes, Oprah Winfrey guided a thoughtful conversation about the devastating effects of childhood trauma and the value of trauma-informed care. Now not later.
Three of my children – ages 27, 25 and 24 – watched with me.
Oprah hit hard on the standard societal responses to the maladaptive behavior. Those often seen in troubled teens and young adults.
“What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with that kid?”
Instead, she stressed the importance of reframing the question. “What happened to you?”
The first vignette focused on an adult survivor of extensive sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Interestingly, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was the only “label” used – which immediately led to comments about military veterans and their well-known struggles with re-integrating into daily life.
Sounds like many kids with traumatic experiences in their backgrounds.
No doubt, common ground.
My young adult children – three of whom came to my adoptive home with a PTSD diagnosis – felt strongly about using the term, with emphasis on respective experiences. Ironically, a lot of other labels later became attached to them.
Most of which focused on willful disobedience.
Rather than explaining their challenges in functioning. At home. At school. In the community.
In emphasizing Oprah’s “what happened” approach, the childhood trauma community might be further embraced outside its circle with wider use of PTSD. A universally-accepted term.
Unfortunately, the young women’s story included minimal description of her volatile, toxic behaviors – in response to the molestation and rape. No explanation of triggers – a variety of sights, sounds or smells related to past events. No focus on the regression that is so common with many survivors – as their trauma recycles.
My children know firsthand. Healing is a lifelong journey, not a destination.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
Another positive of the coverage was the discussion of Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs – and use of an individual ACE score (on a scale of 0-10) to assess personal risk.
Half of my six children scored a 10, with the other half scoring a 7. On the other hand, my score is 0.
High ACE scores are linked to developmental trauma – which means the growing brain becomes wired differently, because of the stress. Daily functioning suffers – with some children in a constant state of hypervigilance which Oprah never explained.
Hypervigilance means increased anxiety that can cause mental and physical exhaustion. It results in an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity – followed by exaggerated behaviors in response. Out of control anti-social behavior. Rage.
Sadly, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates one in eight children has a high ACE score – making them vulnerable.
According to prominent trauma expert Bruce Perry, whose appearance added credibility to Oprah’s coverage, the fall-out is real. For children. Their families. Society.
If you have developmental trauma, the truth is you’re going to be at risk for almost any kind of physical health, mental health, social health problem that you can think of.
That very same sensitivity that makes you able to learn language just like that as a little infant makes you highly vulnerable to chaos, threat, inconsistency, unpredictability, violence.
And so children are much more sensitive to developmental trauma than adults.
Understanding ACE scores underscores Oprah’s statement of “What happened to you?” After helping survivors make sense of their past, treatment must then focus on learning skills to succeed in the future – rather than spinning in the same cycle, which too often is the case. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is one such therapy that teaches mindfulness and moves the survivor forwward.
Mingled throughout Oprah’s coverage was discussion of relationships and their vital role in helping traumatized individuals move forward and remain stable.
“Really it boils down to something pretty simple. And it’s relationships,” added Bruce Perry.
Those connections often begin in therapeutic settings but must be maintained by those people involved day-to-day in the survivors’ life. That’s why they are called natural supports. Those individuals are emotionally available because they care.
When Oprah commented about “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” Perry quickly and appropriately reacted.
“Somebody helped you pull up those boots.”
My children would agree. A dozen exceptional public school teachers. One out-of-the-box therapist. An incredible neighbor. An older woman from church. Several aunts and uncles. And me.
The Next Step
Although Oprah covered a lot of ground in the short segment, the trauma conversation must continue. Not a one and done. Hopefully she can be recruited to be an ongoing facilitator – while expanding her knowledge and list of topics.
What about trauma survivors? They not only live in inner cities but also suburban and rural areas. No race or gender is immune. Many are still young and living with families – desperate for evidence-based care. Homelessness, unplanned pregnancy and incarceration are symptoms – not the systematic cause.
What about co-occurring issues like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)? Recent studies show an increasing prevalence which could reach epidemic proportions. The connection between FASD and trauma must be further examined and affirmed.
What about parents? Whether adoptive or biological, Oprah made no mention of them caring for their children with mental health issues. This omission was a major disappointment for me, since the best place to start healing is within the family.
Before suicidal or homicidal thoughts land a child in the emergency room. Before families or communities are put at risk. Before the juvenile justice or corrections systems consume another life that society feels unworthy. Before parents grow exhausted beyond any reasonable limits – overwhelmed without hope.
At the same time, Oprah highlighted trauma-informed services through Saint A – a well-respected organization that primarily serves 2000 foster children in Milwaukee.
What about families in need of services that simply are not available or readily accessible? What about the emerging national movement to make all schools trauma-sensitive – and improve the success rate for those students most at risk of failure.
Thank you, Oprah and 60 Minutes, for bringing the trauma conversation into the mainstream. No family or individual should feel alone. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Athlete & Advocate