Focus on the Needs of Children: Bessel van der Kolk

Bessel van der Kolk, world-leading expert in trauma and the healing of trauma.

I have included a number of quotes in these Healing blog posts from Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Here is another, this time about children:

‘I like to believe that once our society truly focuses on the needs of children, all forms of social support for families—a policy that remains so controversial in this country [USA]—will gradually come to seem not only desirable but also doable. What difference would it make if all American children had access to high-quality day care where parents could safely leave their children as they went off to work or school? What would our school systems like look like if all children could attend well-staffed preschools that cultivated co-operation self-regulation, perseverance and concentration (as opposed to focusing on passing tests, which will likely happen once children are allowed to follow their natural curiosity and desire to excel, and are not shut down by hopelessness, fear and hyperarousal).

I have a family photograph of myself as a five-year-old perched between my older (obviously wiser) and younger (obviously more dependent) siblings. In the picture I probably hold up a wooden toy boat, grinning from ear to ear: “See what a wonderful kid I am and see what an incredible boat I have! Wouldn’t you love to come and play with me?” All of us, but especially children, need such confidence— confidence that others will know, affirm, and cherish us. Without that we can’t develop a sense of agency that will enable us to assert: “This is what I believe in; this is what I stand for; this is what I would devote myself to.” As long as we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross deserts and stay up all night to finish projects. Children and adults and do anything for people they trust and whose opinion they value.

But if we feel abandoned, worthless, or invisible, nothing seems to matter. Fear destroys curiosity and playfulness. In order to have a healthy society we must raise children who can safely play and learn. There can be no growth without curiosity and no adaptability without being able to explore, through trial and error, who you are what matters to you. Currently more than 50% of the children served by Head Start [1] have had three or more adverse child experiences like those included in the ACE study: incarcerated family members, depression, violence, abuse, or drug use in the home, or periods of homelessness.

People who feel safe and meaningfully connected with others have little reason to squander their lives doing drugs or staring numbly at television; they don’t feel compelled to stuff themselves with carbohydrates or assault their fellow human beings. However, if nothing they do seems to make a difference, they feel trapped and become susceptible to the lure of pills, gang leaders, extremist religions, or violent political movements—anybody or anything that promises relief. As the ACE study has shown, child abuse and neglect is the single most preventable cause of mental illness, the single most common cause of drug and alcohol abuse, and a significant contributor to leading causes of death such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and suicide.’

If you are interested in trauma and healing, Bessel’s book is a must-buy!

[1] Head Start is a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and families. Wiki

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