“How can I help my child to be self confident when I do not feel self confident myself ?” This is not an intimate conversation between friends. It is not a soul-searching parent in private counselling with a psychologist. It is one of many written questions delivered by a 400 strong audience to the stage of a provincial theatre in North Macedonia. Following dance and comedy, the audience engage with an expert panel on hirtherto taboo themes such as neglect & violence. And you can hear a pin drop.
As with most middle and low income countries, there is little public discussion on childhood adversity. Policy makers rarely prioritise investment to address its lifelong impact and costs. The “Parenting Is Always Learned” campaign has two aims. The first is to introduce the science of brain development to ordinary parents in ordinary places in simple language. The second is to break taboos on family crisis and Adverse Childhood Experiences.
We asked Sasko Kocev, a comedian and actor to moderate the event. We were amazed to the extent this created a conducive environment for discussing a taboo and difficult theme in a non-judgemental way.
It made sense later when we read research in the Power Of Moments by behavioural scientists Chip and Dan Heath. It suggests that laughter creates social bonds and synchronises audience engagement . We are all affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences. Most people have experienced them in their own childhood. Those who haven’t are likely to have their lives entwined with someone who has. Violence and neglect are not a “Them” problem, they are an “Us” problem. Comedy reminds us of our imperfections, at the very least, that we are all a bit broken.
A young dance troupe perform a powerful representation of themes such as alienation and domestic violence. The second half of the event is an interaction between the experts & the audience using anonymous questions.
Adverse Childhood Experiences are as present in North Macedonia as they are anywhere. A World health Organisation supported survey found that 64% of young adults had one adverse trauma in childhood and almost 1 in 10 had four or more. The most common was emotional neglect at 30%. I once asked the entire psychology faculty second grade if the data surprised them. It did not.
A campaign alone will not work. Parenting Is also Learned accompanies reforms of health, education and social protection systems. This includes home nursing visits that promote nurturing caregiving and universal pre-school education.
Often childhood trauma such as emotional neglect is transmitted from generation to generation. It is difficult to talk about neglect as we often have to examine our own behaviour or that of our parents. By acknowledging adversity is often transmitted unintentionally, we can discuss it without judgement. This is essential for breaking taboos and enabling consolidated action on childhood adversity.
The answer to the question posed at the beginning of the article is not easy. How do parents ensure they don’t transmit poor attachment, insecurity or anxiety on to their own children.” But senior British psychologist Peter Fonagy researched the way that being “reflective” prevents such transmission. The more parents become aware and reflective of their own feelings and the way they may impact others, the less likely they are to transmit negative models of care.
And as the name of the campaign suggests, we can learn parenting skills. As the curtains go down and we exit the stage there is a queue of parents and young people seeking to share their experience and ideas. Its 10pm, we have gone on for an hour longer than expected, yet many people don’t want to leave.
As Victor Hugo said, there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. The idea whose time has come is that we can nurture the first generation to grow without violence and neglect.
I wouldn’t need a large abacus to count the number of times my experience as someone raised in care of the state has been well represented in a film. But one fleeting moment in Robert Altman’s 2001 murder mystery Gosford Park, an elegant pre-cursor to Dowton Abbey, nailed it.
During a large and free-flowing dinner table conversation about family, Mr Stockbridge (played by Clive Owen) stunned fellow diners when he answered a question with a simple “because I grew up in an orphanage“. The ensuing silence told more of our story than any scripted dialogue ever could.
Anyone from state care who had to describe their background because of a routine question about childhood in a polite conversation knows that silence. Until very recently and in middle age I still grimaced when such discussions arose at the diplomatic functions I attend with my job. If I am honest about it, at different stages of my life I have felt intrinsic shame, stigma and especially guilt for the discomfort it may cause to others and this has often fed into a deep, internal narrative that I am not really good enough to be here . But I also felt compelled never to hide who I am or where I come from. Being from state care is as important for my identity as being a Belgan or being a Hindu may be to someone else. It is where I spent my formative years, it is what shaped me and I want to be a good role model for kids in care today. It is at my core . I just would rather not talk about it.
6% of UK 18 year olds from state care go to university compared to around 27% of the general population. When I was 18 ( a very long time ago) it felt more like 0%. We were from a minority that was more likely than any other to end up in prison, a gang, trafficked, addicted or die early and very very unlikely to go to university. Unlike other marginalised minorities, we had no underpinning culture, flags or narrative to carry a sense of pride in our identity. I am so proud of the 6% of 18 year olds from care who end up in university today. It is mainly a testimony to their own resilience and brilliance, but also the fact that the system has been somewhat reformed in the past couple of decades. The odds are still stacked against them, they make it through anyway.
Like many of my generation, I left a children’s home aged 16 with a €200 leaving care allowance, a modest bag of life possessions and a complete absence of any form of love or belonging at all.
I have never complained about where I come from. This was the way my life was, it was normal to me. Coming from the bottom 1% of a society where identity was shaped by class and family, and then trying to advance though university & career etc often left me feeling unsteady on my feet and like an outsider or an imposter. I still feel like an outsider today to be honest, but I wouldn’t want to go back and change anything.
There are also things I am proud of. Because I had no parental support at all, I woke up at 4 am on weekends, when the other students were coming back from parties, and ran market stalls in Camden Town, I drove a mini-cab around London late at night and did shifts in an old peoples home and a college kitchen to pay my way through university. I really believed that a university education would help me escape the legacy of my childhood and I would do anything to reach that goal. I remember going to my first day of university, buying my own pens and books with money I had earned and not quite believing that I was lucky enough to be there. I was surrounded by people who seemed to take it all for granted. How much luckier I was then them, that this could feel like such a blessing in my life. I still feel blessed and privileged today.
But then there is love. In state care, one often grows up with this internalised sense of being unloveable, not even by one’s parents. Biologically all children are programmed to seek loving protection and nurture from parents, when it is absent they interpret it as danger. Adults from care backgrounds often have low self esteem, insecure attachment, post-traumatic stress and over-active fight or flight systems. This has a profound impact on your identity and sense of self.
You can strive to be a success on the outside as a young care leaver, but inside there are all these jagged edges and broken parts that, if you are aware of them, you would like to put together again. But because you are trying to escape extreme poverty and have an absence of support networks, you are just thinking about survival. Profound emotional insecurity can be a barrier to the relationships that the research now tells us are the single most most important determinants of both healing from trauma and building the resilience to overcome barriers and get on in life. Often the strategy the subconscious gives us is to separate the left and the right side of the brain-to run on the gas of the cognitive: job and education and forget the oil of love, emotion and belonging. But just like a car, you will break down in the end.
Nobody politically can articulate this. The main political discourses in our society don’t do emotional. They only do economic and power.
The left often argues that a care leaver is a victim of discrimination and poverty. But as Nimco Ali wrote recently about race & gender & being a refugee “The left wants to frame my life experience via the prism of helplessness and victimhood. I am meant to be consumed by all that has happened to me — to long for all that I have lost and wait to be rescued, but I have always refused to do that“. For me, it has taken me most of my adult life to feel really comfortable talking about being from care. But I can be shut down in a moment if someone tries to frame my narrative as a victim, and that often comes from the left.
Economic models from the right make life difficult for already marginalised care leavers. I know this from the rock face because I left care during Thatcherism. And then they argue that if an individual care leaver (actually a tiny fraction) can progress through hard work, then anyone can. But evidently they cannot and do not because the impact of trauma and neglect is very individual and complex and based upon the interaction of experience, resilience & biology. In 2019, policy makers should really know this, we shouldn’t have to explain it. And anyway, as Colin Powell once said, “how can you ask someone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps when they don’t have boots“. Care leavers badly need support networks.
Discrimination, poverty and hard work are high stakes challenges for any care leaver, but the main issue remains love, or the lack of it. There is a broader need for a politics that can talk about love, wellbeing, trauma, violence and hope. The social and emotional drivers of all of our behaviour and decisions. And this makes democratic sense because care leavers are not alone.
Until recently there was a common public perception that childhood trauma, neglect & violence were marginal issues addressed through the care, social work and juvenile justice systems dealing with maybe 1 or 2 % of a given child population. But the World Health Organisation and other bodies have undertaken surveys in multiple countries on general populations which reveal that on average, around 60% of adults in family settings were affected be one serious adverse childhood experience (ACEs) and around 15% by 4 or more. The 15% with 4 or more ACEs, like care leavers are much more likely to have really bad life outcomes in health, crime, education and all aspects of wellbeing. In psychology research, 42% of adults across countries are said to have insecure attachment due to absence or inconsistency of parental love in the first two years of life. Insecure attachment severely affects their ability to have quality relationships. The common perception about the marginality of trauma must have ran counter to people’s lived experience and their ability to articulate it. That is now changing.
I was raised in care of the state. I am neither proud of it or ashamed of it. But I would like to live in a world where future care leavers don’t suffer long silences & superficial victim or bootstraps narratives. Where investments are made to ensure those from public care & others affected by adversity everywhere-can reconnect, build and heal free from shame and public stigma. This would be socially just, fiscally prudent and frankly just plain easier and better for the whole of society.
Parenting, education & environment in childhood drive wellbeing in adulthood everywhere. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) including 1o different types of neglect, violence and dysfunctional parenting in the home during childhood, harm the economic, social & democratic development of any society.
Recently global development collaboration efforts have expanded beyond the visible challenges of disease, hunger & illiteracy to also tackle the less visible emotional, social & psychological barriers to human development. The current UN sustainable development goals call for an end to all forms of violence in the lives of children everywhere by 2030.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are much more prevalent than policy makers previously imagined and are distributed within a similar range across continents, classes and races. They include emotional, physical or sexual abuse, emotional or physical neglect & chaos at home including domestic violence, mental health, addiction & crime .
There are ACE or similar Violence Against Children (VAC) surveys from at least 33 countries and 32 US States. These included the UK,, Canada, China, Russia, Brazil, Poland and countries in Africaand Asia.
Looking at the data from 11 European, 12 African, 6 Asian, the US, Brazil and Canada (the 1st, 2ndand 5thmost populous countries of the Americas) and the Solomon Islands, the first thing that is striking is the similarity in prevalence of ACEs. On average about 60% of adult populations have experienced 1 ACE. Some countries such as Brazil and Russia are closer to 80% and some such as the Wales and Serbia are closer to 50%. But almost all countries fall somewhere between 50 and 80%, most hovering around the 60% mark, Similarly the prevalence of 4 or more ACEs is on average around 15%, though some countries have less than 10% such as the Czech Republic and some have more than 20% such as Vietnam.
This is a relatively new form of research and relying on subjective responses to a questionnaire. ACE research in the US shows little difference in prevalence of 1 ACE in social class or ethnic groups. However, a link between prevalence and poverty is clear when it comes to 4 or more ACEs.
When we think about violence against children in the family often the first policy intervention we think of is a targeted social work response. But lets think again. . In a country like Wales, the prevalence rate for 1 ACE is 50%, the prevalence rate for 4 ACEs is 14%, yet the total number of children who are subject to targeted social work intervention for example on a register or in care, it is 1%. To achieve the UN global target to end violence-we need to massively expand universal efforts through prevention & mitigation through health, education and policing working alongside social work.
There is no one reading this blog whose life is not affected by ACEs in some way. ACEs don’t just affect individuals, they affect societies
We know this because where ACE studies have been undertaken they always show a dose response correlation between the number of ACEs you have experienced and poor outcomes in almost every single wellbeing indicator in health, education, crime violence, mental health, addiction and much much more. throughout the entire life cycle
Perhaps the starkest illustration of the inter-generational transmission of violence, criminality and addiction is in the graph below from a 2015 study from Public Health Wales in collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University highlighted a high correlation between adults who experiences four or more ACEs and negative life outcomes:
Compared with people with no ACEs, those with 4+ ACEs are:
4 times more likely to be a high-risk drinker
6 times more likely to have had or caused unintended teenage pregnancy
6 times more likely to smoke e-cigarettes or tobacco
6 times more likely to have had sex under the age of 16 years
11 times more likely to have smoked cannabis
14 times more likely to have been a victim of violence over the last 12 months
15 times more likely to have committed violence against another person in the last 12 months
16 times more likely to have used crack cocaine or heroin
20 times more likely to have been incarcerated at any point in their lifetime
The Wales data also show a much higher likelihood of becoming a victim of violence if you have higher ACEs. Recent work in England has revealed that grooming gangs have a tendency to go after young women with low self-esteem and what psychologists call “ambivalent attachment” as an outcome of inconsistent, neglectful and chaotic parenting in childhood.
The Welsh data is similar to what we see across societies globally. Health departments across US states reveal a similar dose-response correlation between higher aces and worse outcomes in health, wellbeing and decision making with regard to 40 different indicators. The indicators include health outcomes but also behaviours related to addiction, criminality, mental health and unemployment.
Research from China shows a similarly graded link between ACEs and likelihood of alcohol abuse.While ACE studies from Malawi and the Solomon Islands showed a similar graded link between risky behaviours, such as multiple sexual partners and high ACE scores.
Psychiatric evaluations of 1000 detainees at Cook County Juvenile Detention facility in Illinois revealed that 84% of offenders had experienced two or more ACEs and that the majority of offenders had experienced 6 forms of childhood trauma. In a recent study in North Macedonia on ISIS recruitment all teachers, without exception, cited lack of parental care as a major factor for driving children toward radical extremism.
Amongst children in school, if we take ACE data from WHO across Eastern and Central Europe and OECD data from the Pisa study, there is evidence of a correlation between higher than average ACEs and higher rates of school violence. Coupled with the data from Wales showing a link between high ACEs and criminal and violent behaviour, this adds to a growing body of research showing the clear link between family and societal violence and criminal behaviour.
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) suggest that periods of prolonged stress without respite in the home result in “toxic stress” or chronic activation of the stress response system. Research shows that it is not just violence and chaos that creates toxic stress but also emotional coldness from the parent. This is because children are biologically programmed to seek strong bonds and attachments from birth for love and stimulation, but also for protection. As a species we are extremely dependent on parents for protection in early childhood. When the emotional attachment is absent, children see it is a threat and it activates the stress response system. This was also a finding of the prior research on attachment in psychology which revealed that while neglected children often stop showing outward signs of emotional need, their heart rate and cortisol levels are high 
Toxic stress derails normal development of all major systems of the fragile and evolving body and brain of the child. The impact affects the neurological, cardiovascular, immune and endocrinology systems and the way that genes are expressed. One of the impacts of toxic stress is that the body and brained is flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. Research showed that children who had been adopted in Canada but had spent their first year in a state of extreme neglect in children’s homes eastern Europe had much higher levels of cortisol than those who had been adopted earlier or who lived with their biological parents. This despite the fact that the high-cortisol children had spent most of their life in a secure adopted family.
Toxic stress also over-activates the amygdala region of the brain and the human fight or flight response and de-activates the executive function, impulse control and learning capacity of the brain. Children with high ACEs are likely to have problems with concentration, self-soothing and remaining calm and concentrated in the classroom. They are also likely to over-estimate the presence of danger and therefore are more prone to over react and make poor choices in the face of challenges such as perceived “disrespect” from peers or even adults.
This is particularly true during adolescent brain development-when personality and values begin to take shape and underpin individual identity, but also when there is a mismatch between mature impulse response and immature impulse control systems. All of this leads to poorer education outcomes and higher likelihood of
The UK Police are increasingly using ACEs to understand and prevent criminal behaviour such as drugs trafficking across country lines or urban knife crime.It is widely assessed that criminal gangs or violent radical organisations on the one hand, and organised groomers and human-traffickers on the other-prey on young people from high ACE backgrounds. Knowing that there is a neurobiological pathway for high propensity for being a perpetrator or victim of violent crime has led to new levels of collaboration across police, health, social work and education sectors.
Some of the solutions to child trauma, adversity & violence are now known
The first is primary prevention. Nursing visiting where the nurse can demonstrate secure attachment behaviours and positive parenting strategies can halt intergenerational transmission at the moment when the relationship and the parenting style if being formed. The importance of the parent practising the behaviours with the support and guidance of the nurse is crucial. Often for new parents with high ACEs , for example for young women from state care backgrounds, having children in a supportive environment is the breakthrough which enables the parent to strengthen their attachment capability, self-soothe and overcome their own high ACEs background. This is important because the first step to preventing intergenerational transmission of ACEs is ensuring that the parent is okay, calm and without anxiety Through longitudinal studies in Jamaica and the United States, Nobel prize winning economist Professor James Heckman demonstrated improved productivity, more health-seeking behaviour and reduced criminality amongst young adults who had received home visits decades earlier as babies yielded up to a $ 17 return for every public dollar invested, and that this was the biggest return on public investment that any government can make.  This correlates with research done by the Overseas Development Institute which conservatively suggests that 8% of global GDP is lost through the long term costs of violence against children.
The World Bank, UNICEF & WHO now cite the Heckman research to advocate for governments to create fiscal space for investment in perinatal care, parenting and also pre-school for three to six year olds. The pre-school component is also important in combatting ACEs because the absence of stimulation and presence of toxic stress at home in early childhood derails language acquisition and other key learning and concentration attributes which cannot be caught up later and further diminish the prospects of progressing through school thus exacerbating the negative impact of ACEs on human flourishing. Universal pre-school is crucial to mitigate the long-term impacts of ACEs.
The second policy intervention is building resilience. Studies from child survivors of the holocaust to present-day conflicts and ACE-based research has pinpointed resilience as the main antidote to toxic stress or chronic trauma. Resilience in childhood is about having “development assets which mitigate the impact of toxic on the brain and body. While the 2015 Welsh study had a dose response correlation between ACEs and poor life outcomes, it also had a dose response correlation of children with ACEs “bouncing back” from trauma if development assets were in place.
There are many environmental factors, a lot of research of childhood survivors from the holocaust for example pinpoints ability to form and maintain relationships as a key determinant. Having at least one positive relationship is perhaps the one determinant of resilience across all research. Other key aspects of resilience are things like belonging, purpose and a capacity to self-soothe. It has often been noted that children in state care or other high ACE situations are more likely to do better in life if they engage in sports. There are generations of bar stool pundits who have suggested that this is because such young people have had a chance to “channel their aggression positively” however through the research on resilience we probably now know that the positive correlation with sports and overcoming adversity is rather about positive relationships, belonging and purpose. Another myth that the resilience research bursts is the concept of the resilient individual overcoming adversity through sheer, individual perseverance. In reality where resilience occurs, it is normally because of relationships, not the rugged individual operating by themselves.
A good policy target for governments wishing to promote human flourishing would be to ensure that every child has at least one positive relationship with an adult in their lives. Sometimes this may need to be a teacher, a sports coach or social worker if the family is not able to provide such a relationship. The approach of trauma informed schools in which children are able to regulate, relate & reason…in order words calm down the stress response system, have a deep connection with a teacher and then begin to learn…are increasing being mainstreamed in education sector reform.
For the first time in history, the sustainable development goals provide policy space to make parenting, resilience and violence prevention systems available globally by 2030. To maximise this opportunity, we need to build a global movement that can harness this knowledge into action everywhere and create common understanding across societies whilst maintaining the flexibility to graft these interventions on to local cultures and value systems. Through this approach we can create a world in which all children can have the optimum opportunity to grow free from trauma and thrive in societies which flourish.