A "well-resourced" childhood (or not)


What is a well-resourced childhood? It's not only a childhood free from adverse childhood events (ACEs) like drugs in the home, sex abuse, domestic violence, divorce, and other disturbances. The definition of "well-resourced" is more on the positive side, such as parents encouraging children to enjoy reading, to follow their passions, to choose a musical instrument to learn, to learn a second language early in life, and to avoid excessive busy-ness and useless electronics. Parents should as well be actively involved in advocating for a calm and productive school environment. Above all, fostering resilience means fostering creativity in areas like those mentioned above by spending "together time" learning new things so that children can spend "alone time" mastering these things--like the picture above of a father and son. Learning by example at a young age is the basis for creativity. When this happens, a child is well-resourced, and has a successful basis for problem-solving independently and creatively, as a result of dedicated, engaged parenting.

A well-resourced childhood not only encourages a child's success, self-reliance, and creativity--it actually prevents trauma. An individual who had a well-resourced childhood is at much less risk for a negative event to become a "stuck" in the horrors of PTSD. Creativity is at the heart of the mental processing of terrible events, and represents the ability to re-imagine the past and be certain of choices that can create a better future. Allow me to quote two examples from the excellent book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, a leading researcher. I believe one has already been quoted in another post, so excuse me for that.

Dr. Van der Kolk was living in New York City in Sept. of 2001, and had a fellow doctor and friend who lived with his family near to the World Trade Center. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, he went to make sure his friend and the friend's family were OK. The friend was shaken, and told Dr. Van der Kolk that his son, five years old, had seen the second plane hit, the fires, and the falling towers out of his kindergarten window, quite nearby. Dr. Van der Kolk noticed that the boy was at a table now, with a stack of paper, a set of half-used crayons, and a pile of completed drawings. The boy was drawing what he had seen, again and again, and this included stick figures jumping hand in hand out of the buildings rather than burning alive, the fires, the smoke, an airplane impacting a building--in short, nothing less than all the horrors he had seen out his classroom window. Dr. Van der Kolk decided to ask the boy about his work, and the boy explained all of the things he was drawing. Dr. Van der Kolk, with the inquisitiveness that would make him famous, noticed that the boy had drawn a black circle at the bottom of the towers, and asked what this was. The boy answered, "It's a trampoline, so that if it happens again, the people who jump will be safe." He had creatively re-imagined the horrors, seeing choices for a better future while increasingly developing a sense of freedom and resolution concerning the event. He was successfully doing trauma therapy on himself, at five years old, because he had a highly resourced childhood, with plenty of time for creative play and new learning experiences. That didn't take money--it took active, intentional, involved parenting in a stable environment.

The second example is a bit shorter, quoted by Dr. Van der Kolk from another source. A husband and wife were in a car accident, and had to be cut out of the crushed car by firefighters. Amazingly, neither of them was hurt. However, while the husband quickly crawled out to safety when the roof was cut out, the wife was stuck in a seated position, rigid as a mannequin, and staring into space. It later came to light that while the husband had an adequately resourced childhood, the woman had been abused as a child, and her reaction to that childhood abuse was to freeze, as she was trapped. This became her trauma response, which was repeated in the accident. She was OK, and her participation in research helped us understand some of the neurobiology of trauma, and of course she received effective treatment.

A final thought deals with childhood resourcing and the creation of the PTSD diagnosis in the early 1980's to explain what many Vietnam veterans experienced after the war--flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, avoidance behaviors, all of the things we think of as trauma symptoms. About one in four Vietnam combat veterans came home with PTSD. Better training has reduced that to one in ten for our more recent wars in the middle east. But what has never been taken into account is that many front-line combat troops are assigned that job because they score low on the ASVAB military tests for creativity and problem-solving. Front-line troops as well are quite often drawn from tough backgrounds in which the military was the most obvious ticket out. That is to say, front-line combat troops, if they have had trauma in childhood, or simply a poorly resourced childhood, are no less brave, but much more susceptible to PTSD than for instance a special forces soldier who aced his intelligence tests and was identified as a creative problem-solver.

It is worth noting however that everyone has a breaking point, and beyond that, no one suffering from a trauma disorder is at fault themselves. The PTSD rate after two tours in Vietnam (many brave men chose to stay for reasons of their own) rose to 50%, and after three tours the figure was nearly 100%. So, a highly resourced childhood and natural resilience help, but that's not a panacea in a world of daily terror. One example that needs to be examined is the rate of PTSD for Israeli combat soldiers, which is one in one hundred. It is thought that the fairness of Israel's universal, unbiased draft for men and women is responsible, as well as the family closeness of the communities these citizen-soldiers return to, which also gives a strong sense of purpose.