Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope

By Jennifer Samartano

The child may not remember, but the body remembers. Researchers have recently discovered a dangerous biological syndrome caused by abuse and neglect during childhood. As the documentary Resilience reveals, toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune. Resilience, however, also chronicles the dawn of a movement that is determined to fight back. Trailblazers in pediatrics, education, and social welfare are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the insidious effects of toxic stress—and the dark legacy of a childhood that no child would choose. (KPJR Films Synopsis)

A Whole New Understanding

Resilience is a one-hour documentary that delves into the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and how recognizing and understanding ACEs has given birth of a new movement to treat and prevent toxic stress among children.

The stress of severe and chronic childhood trauma can alter brain development and have long lasting effects on health and behavior. The experts and practitioners featured in the film are proving what is predictable is preventable. The physicians, educators, social workers and communities are daring to talk about the effects of divorce, abuse, neglect and other adverse childhood experiences. They also share various strategies of how to build resilience to help the next generation break the cycles of adversity and disease.

When the ACE study was originally done it was extremely controversial. It was taboo to ask a patient if they “were ever sexually abused as a child” or if they “had parent that was an alcoholic.” However, the answers produced a public health revelation. For the first time the loss of a parent through death, divorce or incarceration and other experiences of trauma in childhood (e.g., living with an alcoholic parent or being sexually abused) was conclusively linked to both physical and mental health problems later in life.

What are ACEs?

ACE is an acronym for Adverse Childhood Experiences. There are three main types of Adverse Childhood Experiences. They are abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. These include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse, physical neglect and emotional neglect, exposure to domestic violence, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce and an incarcerated household member.

There are many other Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as being bullied by another child or adult, witnessing violence outside of the home, witnessing a brother or sister being abused, being homeless, poverty, sexism, racism or other form of discrimination, and natural disasters (think current health crisis).

ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood. ACEs can also negatively impact education and job opportunities. Overall, ACEs can have long lasting negative effects on health, well-being and opportunity. It is important to know, and, as the documentary points out, ACEs are common and can be prevented.

Having gained a better understanding of ACEs and how they impact the development of a child, we all are in a better position to help children to have better outcomes.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to thrive, adapt and cope despite tough and stressful times. Resilience is a natural counter-weight to Adverse Childhood Experiences in one’s life. Resilience helps children deal with negative situations in a healthy way.

Resilience isn’t something that you are born with. It gets built over time. Positive experiences in early life help build resilience and can protect children from the effects of trauma and toxic stress. Having stable, nurturing relationships with caring adults helps to build resilience in children. Think about the relationships in your life, especially those in childhood that helped make a positive difference in your life.

Resilience, the documentary, not only discusses adverse childhood experiences and the impact of toxic stress, but also offers various strategies to help build resilience.

One of the more notable strategies that stands out in this film is changing the conversation when a child is acting out from “what’s wrong with you” to “what happened to you and how can we help fix it.” This changes the dialogue from blaming or labeling the child for their behavior and helps to show compassion or empathy when interacting with the child. This in turn helps to build resiliency.

Is There Hope?

Overall, with its clarity about ACEs and discussion of resilience, the documentary Resilience promotes hope.

It reminds us that we are not doomed by having high ACE scores. Science shows that the effect of ACEs does not have to be permanent, especially if we have caring adults and nurturing environments which are critical for healthy development.

We all have a role to play in promoting the great childhoods that children deserve. Seeing this documentary inspires a call to action. What will be your call to action? How can you make a difference in the lives of children and families in your community?

More Great Resources

For more information or to schedule a screening and post film discussion please contact Jennifer Samartano, Prevent Child Abuse Illinois at jsamartano at pcaillinois dot org or go directly to PCA-Illinois.

ACE Score & Resilience Score questionnaire

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

A Guide to Toxic Stress, Center on the Developing Child Harvard University

Resilience (film), gratis KPJR Films

Film Information, from the International Movie database

Jennifer Samartano is a Prevention Specialist for Prevent Child Abuse Illinois. Her duties include collaborating, advocating and promoting the prevention of child abuse in the Northern Region of Illinois. She is also the Program Manager for the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Initiative for PCA Illinois. She is a Certified Facilitator and Certified Instructor for the Darkness to Light’s, “Stewards of Children” child sexual abuse prevention program. She also serves on the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services Northern Region Child Death Review Team.

Jennifer’s prior work experience includes being employed by the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office at the Child Advocacy Center. Working as a Child and Family Advocate, Jennifer worked with children traumatized by child sexual abuse. Jennifer currently holds a position on the Friend’s Board of the DuPage County Children’s Advocacy Center. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Loyola University and also a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management & Leadership from Walden University.

Jennifer’s Basic Guidelines for Parents: Get Smart is one of The Healing Voices Magazine’s most accessed articles. We encourage readers to review it and share it with others who care for children.

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