As I packed up my faculty office at Nazarene Bible College, I reflected on how my life had turned upside down in one short year. Surrounded by 40 years of awards and recognitions, mixed with memorabilia and shelves of academic material on education and early childhood development, I wondered how I had completely missed the most important word in my story: trauma.
On the day of my retirement, I was only vaguely familiar with the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study. I was too deeply involved in surviving and healing my own story to fully comprehend the paradigm shift that had begun because of this landmark study.
The first CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study was conducted in southern California from 1995 to 1997. The survey collected data regarding childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors. Seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were surveyed: psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; witnessing violence against the mother; or living in a household with any who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or had ever been imprisoned.
The research revealed higher incidences of adverse childhood experiences increased the chances of risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports a graded-response relationship with at least 40 outcomes. What researchers found would slowly begin to bring a paradigm shift to many professions, including education, where higher ACE scores increased the risk for lower academic achievement and low graduation rates.
The ACE findings would eventually provide a crucial missing piece to many of the challenging behaviors and academic issues exhibited in classrooms across our nation and around the world. On a personal level, it helped me to understand that my lifelong and well-hidden mental health struggles were the result of sexual abuse that began in a home daycare when I was 3 years old. Even my seemingly random academic struggles could be understood in terms of the effects of trauma on academic achievement. I had been an overachieving underachiever who was repeatedly told I was not working up to my potential.
The ACE findings would eventually provide a crucial missing piece to many of the challenging behaviors and academic issues exhibited in classrooms across our nation and around the world.
The paradigm shift beginning to take hold in both the medical and educational communities can be summed up in one statement: don’t ask what is wrong with this child; ask what has happened to this child. It is difficult to ascertain exactly who first said this statement, but it made its way into a 60 Minutes segment on March 11, 2018, in which Oprah interviewed Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Ill. I cheered when I saw the segment because everything I understood as a result of three years of intensive therapy had finally hit the mainstream. There was never anything wrong with me! Something happened to me!
My personal lack of understanding about childhood trauma, stigma surrounding mental health, and pressure to control behaviors resulting from repressed memories finally took its toll and resulted in my retirement in 2015. I literally crawled to retirement at the age of 62. While my accomplishments said otherwise, I was clearly living out the ACE statistic of lost life potential due to adverse childhood experiences. My only hope was a sense that God would not allow my story and determination to heal to be wasted. I had to give up everything in order to gain a reward I could neither see nor imagine.
During a “retirement” trip to San Diego, a walk across the PLNU campus provided an opportunity to reflect on a life well lived and what had transpired to turn my world upside down. The view was the same, but the campus itself was quite different from the year I arrived to begin my junior year in the fall of 1973. My classmates and I were part of the great migration from Pasadena to San Diego. My walk had one major purpose — to find a playground.
The first time I walked onto the PLNU campus, we were all enamored by the ocean view, but I found myself staring at a playground in front of what is now the Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC). In that moment, I knew I had come home. I added child development to my almost completed Christian education major and never looked back. On this trip, my years as an educator had come to a screeching halt, and I took solace in sitting at a picnic table and observing the children playing in the now greatly improved playground.
My dedication to the field of early education made complete sense. My dissertation on the view of the child from innocence to non-innocence was clearly a subconscious attempt to heal my story. My lifelong belief that the experiences of our smallest, most vulnerable population matter had been validated via brain research. My mental health problems embedded in my earliest experiences of insecure attachment and trauma were never my fault. There was so much I understood as I sat at the picnic table and during the subsequent trip down memory lane via a guided tour of the ECLC conducted by its academic director, Susan Rogers, but there was still so much to learn.
In hindsight, the word “trauma” never crossed my lips during my 33 years as a teacher educator. This would seem like avoidance except it had probably never crossed the minds of my colleagues either. Yes, we knew children who had experienced various forms of abuse usually exhibited difficult behaviors, but we did not know their brain development had been affected. We were mostly concerned with giving future teachers strategies for helping these children learn to control their behavior. Much of what I suggested to my students had little or no effect — and possibly made it worse. To my credit, I did say, “If you will take time to know a child’s story, their behavior will make sense.”
The reality is, we can’t always know a child’s story. We often do not even fully know our own stories. The ability of the human mind to repress experiences too difficult to process is a little-understood truth. Researchers are making profound progress in explaining how the brain processes traumatic memories. In my case, continuing trauma fragmented the memories in ways that allowed me to survive but filled my life with triggers, learning challenges, emotional turmoil, depression, and anxiety. This was all present during my childhood but only viewed as difficult behavior. Whether acting out or withdrawing, the child is exhibiting a need for safety. Without help, these children will reap turmoil for a lifetime.
The reality is, we can’t always know a child’s story. We often do not even fully know our own stories. The ability of the human mind to repress experiences too difficult to process is a little-understood truth.
Much social and religious teaching asks us to leave our childhood behind and press forward with positivity into the future. This does not work well when trauma is held in the cells of our body and the embedded traumatized messages inform our daily decisions. It is important for society, the church, and schools to understand the importance of the earliest experiences. Without an understanding of this, we miss a major factor in our conceptualization of behavior.
As I began to speak publicly about my story through organizations such as the Attachment and Trauma Network, my understanding of the broad scope of trauma increased exponentially. Sexual abuse is not the only trauma that effects both children and adults. The increasing knowledge surrounding the effects of traumatic birth experiences on the developing child is but one example. Also, inadequate or insecure attachment and developmental trauma are often intertwined in ways which feel and look like personality, but are instead the result of the disruption of early brain development.
More than 40 years ago, I understood the importance of early childhood development — both consciously and subconsciously. My choice to work with the youngest children was not glamorous and my options were very limited. It was often necessary to pursue other career options, but the youngest children were always my passion. It took many years for brain research to validate the choice I made while staring at the playground on the PLNU campus. When an anniversary of the center was celebrated, the article included a picture of me standing beside small children climbing on the playground equipment. What a perfect tribute to a young woman who made a life-determining choice while staring at a playground but didn’t understand why.
When my office was completely packed, it felt like life was ending, but in truth, it was only beginning — even though two more years of intensive therapy laid ahead of me. Through this process, I began to understand early childhood trauma (and attachment) from the inside out. With the help of EMDR (Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing), a research-based therapy recognized worldwide for its power in healing trauma, my brain began to rewire and integrate more than 20 dissociated parts of my personality. This harrowing journey forever changed my life.
Fully discussing what researchers are learning about the effects of childhood trauma is beyond the scope of this writing. Even a cursory search of the literature can be overwhelming. The study of epigenetics is at the beginning stages of explaining how trauma affects the expression of genes and how these changes are believed to be carried across generations. Brain scans are enabling researchers to see actual structural differences in the brains of those who experienced various forms of childhood abuse and neglect. It isn’t merely behavior, what we are seeing is the result of the disruption of normal brain development.
While the evidence of the damage caused by trauma might seem discouraging, the good news is that the brain has the capacity to rewire and heal. I devoted three years of my life to prove this was true. I learned to distinguish between what was truly “me” — the person God created — and what was a result of what happened to me. I learned how my brain utilized God-given coping mechanisms to survive and provided every appearance of thriving. I also learned my emotional development had been frozen at various stages of my life. What had been perceived as shameful failures were the result of the developmental devastation of trauma.
Watch Now: How can trauma be understood in light of theology and faith?
On this side of healing, I am still the educator who devoted my life to preparing teachers for the classroom. Understanding trauma would have informed my instruction in many ways. Looking back over hundreds and hundreds of students who sat in front of me, it is clear many were probably exhibiting the effects of childhood trauma. During hours of classroom observations, I watched teachers trying to “manage” classroom behaviors without any knowledge of the underlying causes. It is impossible to go back with what is now understood about trauma, but there was still time to consider how the remainder of my life was to be lived. Publicly telling my story was not an easy choice, but when the decision was made, I once again never looked back.
To a great extent, aside from an extremely caring and dedicated therapist, much of my healing came through writing. The hundreds of pages of process writing were transformed into the book BRAVE: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma, published in January of 2018. It is both a personal and professional achievement and is the triumphant expression of the young woman who stared at the playground and devoted her life to helping children. It provides hope for healing, as well as an understanding of the effects of trauma and insecure attachment. It is a cautionary tale about the importance of seeking therapeutic help as quickly after trauma as possible.
PLNU is still a profound part of my story for many reasons, but particularly as the place where I found my life passion — twice. Everything I experienced on the PLNU campus helped me believe the world could be changed by those who were willing to give their lives to a cause. I watched the sunset every night from my dorm room and believed it was possible to rise from the ashes of experiences (which I did not yet fully understand) and make a difference in my world. My return trip and time at the picnic table helped me to gain this resolve once again.
While healing was my own personal triumph, my public triumph was to use my story to inform others about what I had learned along the way. My secrets almost killed me; my truth set me free. I am once again the young woman who stared at the playground and decided to devote her life to the youngest children. We all have children in our classrooms, churches, homes, and communities who need us to understand how their experiences are affecting their development. Many of us have a hurting child deep inside of us who we have tried to leave behind for far too long. If help had been available at the time of the abuse, my story would have been very different; but there was no understanding of trauma. It was believed I would forget. The body never forgets.
We all have children in our classrooms, churches, homes, and communities who need us to understand how their experiences are affecting their development.
The answer to many problems faced by our society can be found by helping the children on the playgrounds of our nation. This will often entail helping families trapped in generational cycles. There is much to accomplish if our nation is to embrace this paradigm shift of trauma- sensitive care and teaching. Primarily speaking as an educator, viewing behavior through a trauma-sensitive lens is a paradigm shift which benefits all children. To some extent, every human on the planet has experienced trauma to some degree. It doesn’t have to be to the extent which I describe in my story for it to have lifelong effects. Sensory processing issues which are a result of birth trauma are an example of this. Thinking children will “grow out of it” is the worst possible choice we could make.
In conclusion, what does viewing behavior through a trauma-sensitive lens entail? It is an understanding that every child and adult longs to be seen, feel cared about, and be provided with physical and emotional safety. All who study the development of resilience know the key is one caring adult who stands in the gap for a child. Children who have been betrayed and abused do not receive this easily, but it is how we heal the world — one child at a time.
Janyne McConnaughey (75), Ph.D., is a retired educator who has written two books on the subject of insecure attachment and childhood trauma: BRAVE: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma and Jeannie’s Brave Childhood: Behavior and Healing through the Lens of Attachment and Trauma.
Related Article: Discover how important play is for children.