Childhood bullying is an epidemic in this country. Around 28% of students experience it first hand, and nearly 70% witness it happen.
When we hear about it, we feel sympathy for the kids being bullied, as we should, but don’t often give this care and consideration to the perpetrators. Instead, our gut reaction is to ask questions.
“Why did they do this?”
“What is wrong with them?”
“What did the parents do/not do?”
But if we hope to improve the mental health of our children, the adults they become, and the communities that raise them, we need to ask better questions. Journalist, philanthropist, and TV legend Oprah Winfrey wants to help people get there by examining the role of childhood trauma.
“This story is so important to me and I believe to our culture that if I could dance on the tabletops right now to get people to pay attention to it, I would,” she said on “CBS This Morning.”
Trauma is the emotional response to a distressing event, including but not limited to violence, sexual assault or abuse, a natural disaster, or an accident.
The heightened emotional response can occur immediately after the event, (think the shock or denial that may occur after getting mugged), but it can also continue months or years later. Survivors may have uncomfortable flashbacks, confusion, anxiety, or feel withdrawn. The symptoms can also be physical, with nightmares, racing heartbeats, muscle tension, and fatigue. Trauma can literally take over your body and mind, and its effects can be magnified in children.
In a report for “60 Minutes” Oprah sat down with Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist and expert on childhood trauma.
Perry revealed that adverse or distressing events in a child’s early development, can increase their chances of social, mental, and physical problems later in life.
“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,” Perry told Winfrey. “And so children are much more sensitive to developmental trauma than adults.”
Since trauma can stem not just from single events, but from living in stressful environments, children in these situations may be wired differently than those living in consistent, nurturing, predictable homes.
Perry says children living in chaos and unpredictability (think residing in areas with a lot of crime, growing up food insecure, or with parents who are struggling with addiction) are at much higher rates of risk for academic trouble and potential mental health problems.
“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,” Perry said.
“If you don’t fix the hole in the soul … you’re working at the wrong thing.”
Trauma-informed care is one approach to tackling this issue.
Trauma-informed care means taking into account a person’s trauma and the coping mechanisms they’ve been using when educating or treating someone. This might look like a school environment where open communication, empathy, and sensitivity to how other people are feeling are top priorities, not just to help children cope with trauma, but to create a culture of welcoming, tolerance, and acceptance to prevent further trauma. This would also mean teachers, administrators, and support staff would be trained in direct intervention methods to support traumatized students.
After learning about the effects of developmental trauma, Winfrey reached out to the board of her school in South Africa to change the way they’re approaching education.
“It has definitively changed the way I see people in the world, and it has definitively changed the way I will now be operating my school in South Africa and going forward any philanthropic efforts that I’m engaged in,” she said on “CBS This Morning.”
If Winfrey seems especially passionate about this, it’s because she experienced traumatic events as a child.
She’s spoken at length about the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a relative when she was a child. And recently opened up about the spankings she received from her mother, which were common at the time, but no less distressing. Winfrey threw herself into school work and found a positive outlet, and supportive, trusted adults in her teachers. Without those role models and a positive outlet, her story may have gone a lot differently.
To improve our schools and communities, it’s worth rethinking the notion of “bad kids,” or “bad parents.”
Instead of asking “What is wrong with them?” take a step back and consider the role childhood trauma may have played in their upbringing. Asking, “What have they seen or experienced?,” and “Who was there to help them through that experience?” may provide some insight. Trauma doesn’t negate their misbehavior, but it may provide the empathy and understanding they desperately need to change their ways.
“If you don’t fix the hole in the soul, the thing that is where the wounds started, you’re working at the wrong thing.”