We are currently in a struggle, both nationally and locally, to find a response to violence – violence that is real and bleeding into every community, every neighborhood and our everyday lives. We often think we are immune to violence – that our homes are safe, that people in our churches, our neighborhoods and our friends are not capable of hurting anyone. We are wrong. Violence finds our families. It comes into our workplaces and churches with the next person who walks through the door; and into our homes when children have sleepovers and when we marry.
There is no simple answer or one step to reduce violence; no “either/or.” Violence is a complex problem with individual reasons, family factors and community and social influences. My experience takes me to the root causes that rest with individual and family factors that can have lasting effects for our community. Research shows that when early traumatic events or Adverse Childhood Experiences occur in a child’s life, they have far-reaching effects.
While 62% of South Carolina adults have had at least one ACE, 16% of those have experienced four or more adverse impacts, with four experiences acknowledged as the tipping point for significant future risk. Those experiences include abuse, mental illness of a family member, alcoholism of a parent, abandonment, separation from a primary adult, domestic violence and parental indifference and neglect.
When the number of those experiences layer one trauma on top of the other, there is a significant impact on the maturing brain that reduces a child’s ability to respond, learn, remember or build healthy attached relationships. It increases stress hormones which decrease the body’s ability to fight infection. It also lowers a person’s tolerance for stress, often causing behaviors such as fighting, checking out and defiance. When a person is disconnected from others, has a low tolerance of others and sees no way out but to fight, violence is often the result. Too many children in our community live in families where violence and antisocial behavior collide with generational poverty and little or no support systems.
My answer to reduce violence is to intervene in the lives of young children and their families by providing early childhood mental health services, training and education, and enhanced protection. Our focus at Children’s Place is on helping children develop secure, healthy attachments with their caregivers. Not only does this increase a child’s ability to deepen their relationships with family and friends, but it also increases empathy and understanding of others and improves their ability to tolerate and manage stress. Our daily work helps children learn, trust and practice behaviors that calm their nervous systems. They develop significant relationships that support them unconditionally. Our family counselors encourage and challenge our families to overcome adversity in their lives. As one mother recently said, “Children’s Place became my entire village.” Young children and their families feel supported and find hope. When there is hope built on strong relationships, violence is diminished.