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VIDEO: The Impact of Childhood Adversity, and Its ‘Antidote’

How does the trauma we experience as children impact our lives as adults, and most importantly, what can buffer the impacts of adversity in the lives of children?

Before Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness tackled these questions at the Recommit to Kids Summit, she recalled a study she came across that analyzed adversity’s impact on childhood development.

“What I found absolutely blew my mind,” she said in a panel alongside actress and activist Anna Deavere Smith and founder of Homeboy Industries Father Greg Boyle. “I did not understand how this was something I never learned about in medical school and residency.”

Journalist Alicia Mendez moderates a panel on the barriers that keep young people from pursuing their dreams with actress and activist Anna Deavere Smith, Homeboy Industries Founder Father Greg Boyle, and Dr. Nadine Burke Harris at the Recommit to Kids Summit.

The study Burke Harris referred to was a landmark report on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which found that children who experienced certain types of adversity were more likely to be depressed, develop heart disease, attempt suicide, and experience other serious issues as an adult.

“When you’re exposed to high doses of adversity in childhood, it activates our stress response, which changes the structure and function of children’s developing brains, their immune systems, and their hormonal systems,” Burke Harris explained.

This stress response—referred to as toxic stress—can result in perceived bad behavior or students “acting out,” which then results in suspension or expulsion, as this Slate article examined last year.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing about children as early as pre-school being booted out of school for expressing symptoms of a neurodevelopmental challenge,” Burke Harris said. “It’s unjust and it shouldn’t be happening.”

Both Deavere Smith and Burke Harris said the answer was not to blame teachers.

“If you had a teacher trying to teach a class of 30 kids and 15 of them had epilepsy, you’re not going to blame the teacher when the test scores come in low,” Burke Harris said.

“Every teacher in America as part of regular teacher training should be able to recognize the symptoms of toxic stress,” she continued. “Every pediatrician in America should be screening for adverse childhood experiences.”

Though Burke Harris said that Adverse Childhood Experiences occur in affluent and low-income communities alike, adults in these communities have different reasons for being able to serve as buffers in their children’s lives.

As Burke Harris noted in the video above, the “antidote” to toxic stress is a safe and nurturing environment; however, she said the stress that adults in poverty experience can prevent parents from being able to provide that environment.

But Burke Harris added that “any safe, stable, and nurturing adult” can buffer the effects of toxic stress, a finding supported by a recent Center for Promise study.

Father Greg Boyle, who founded the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, Homeboy Industries, echoed the idea that any loving adult can have an impact on children.

“People often disqualify themselves, and they presume they can’t be a caring adult for certain children, because they don’t share the same experience, race, or background,” Boyle said.

“If you’re a proud owner of a pulse,” he continues in the above video, “you can be the loving caring adult who pays attention.”

This story is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth.