Pause for a moment and take a breath before you read this. See if you can hold judgment, if your heart can soften and open, if you can read without needing to respond immediately. I invite you to just take this in.
Hurt people hurt people. That’s a mantra in the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) awareness community, and it’s what I thought of when I heard the news that yet another teen shot up a school. It didn’t take long to start hearing the perpetrator’s childhood traumas: adopted along with his brother (what age? Was he exposed to the foster care system?), that his adoptive father died years ago, and then orphaned this past December when his adoptive mother died as well. He was expelled from high school last year due to behavior issues. Be clear that I fully condemn this young man’s actions. But his public defender had it right when, at the arraignment hearing, she put her hand on his back and said, “This is a broken human being”. He is sad and expressing remorse. His life didn’t need to play out this way.
Neuroscience is demonstrating how traumatic events impact a growing child, damaging brain development, altering immune, hormone and cardiovascular systems and shifting genetic expression. This is particularly true when the brain is rapidly developing between 0-3 years old and again in adolescence. Our lived experience actually becomes our biology. Memories formed before we are verbal shape our worldview, and when experiences are unpredictable, threatening, and overwhelming the lower areas of our brains wire more densely, ramping up our survival/stress response/fight or flight instincts. These changes, if not mitigated, persist throughout adulthood.
Nurturing, loving environments with reasonable amounts of stress promote healthy brain development, enabling adaptive stress responses that strengthen us for life’s challenges. Our brains remain plastic (read: changeable) throughout our lifetimes. Indeed there is increasing recognition that this is what is happening when we address our suffering, through creating narrative, naming the wisdom and insight that comes from life experiences, or when we more intentionally seek healing through counseling, movement (i.e. yoga) or medication: we are rewiring our brains. Even our genetic expression shifts for the better.
ACEs are common and cumulative. They have been called the largest unrecognized public health epidemic in the United States. Our society doesn’t make it easy to provide safe, nurturing environments for our little ones that would prevent ACEs. 15 million U.S. children – 21 percent – live in poverty. That’s one in five! Health care is a privilege rather than a right. Child welfare systems are broken; foster care is often a nightmare of instability. It is common for parents to return to work 6 weeks after giving birth. Our societal norms create environments that are conducive to ACEs, rather than preventing them.
And so you end up with a young man who is a broken human being acting out his traumatic life by taking the lives of innocents. A young man who legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle in a state with lenient gun laws. This is not a mental health issue; it is a whole body issue. It is a societal values issue. It requires responses like stricter gun control exactly because we can’t predict who might act out of their lived experiences next.
The trauma-informed response to someone with behavior issues is to check our assumptions and ask, “What happened to you?” instead of, “What’s wrong with you?” and then to affirm them in acknowledging their suffering. No infant is born wanting to shoot up a school. We need more than stricter gun laws; we need a fundamental shift in values – and the policies that flow from them – so that we create a society that supports young families. We need cross sector awareness of the impact of ACEs so that we respond in ways that promote healing. “What is predictable is preventable” says one of the original ACE researchers, Dr. Anda. Let’s get the conversation going.