Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Watch Part 1
Childhood trauma impacts millions of Americans, and it’s having devastating consequences
Just as our understanding of trauma’s long-term impacts has grown in recent years, so too has our grasp of how to treat and prevent it. And this evolution has continued during the pandemic, forcing those who are giving and receiving treatment to adapt. Special correspondent Cat Wise and producer Rachel Wellford report as part of our series, “Invisible Scars: America's Childhood Trauma Crisis."
Over the past several days, we have looked at how childhood trauma impacts people around the country. Now we focus on solutions.
Just as our understanding of trauma's long-term impacts has grown, so too has our grasp of how to treat and prevent it.
Special correspondent Cat Wise and producer Rachel Wellford have the final report of our series Invisible Scars: America's Childhood Trauma Crisis.
It's a Friday morning, and Eamani Williams is getting her son Sha'quan and daughter Amara off to preschool. Raised by a single mother, Eamani says her childhood was sometimes tough. Now a 22-year-old single mom herself, Eamani realized there was a lot she didn't know when her son was born four years ago.
Was it tough being a new mom?
Honestly, it was. That pregnancy wasn't planned. I didn't know what to do, like how to bond with him.
And we now know how important those bonds are. Research shows that early positive interactions with caregivers can help kids better cope with trauma down the line.
At this clinic, in Schenectady, New York, Eamani connected with a program that helps her kids become more resilient by working through her own past traumas. The program, called HealthySteps, places child development experts like Bernadette McDaniel in pediatric offices.
We're seeing in the parents domestic violence, abuse, all kinds of sexual — sexual abuse, neglect.
She shares parenting skills and other resources to help reduce day-to-day stresses that can lead to trauma for kids.
Before the days of COVID, I would be able to hold the babies and cradle the babies and talk to the babies and talk to mom about how the baby responds to a smile, how the baby responds to your voice.
Eamani says that information has changed how she parents.
When I get, like, my depression episodes, I try not to be depressed in front of, them because they're like a mirror. So I try to just not show it around them, at least try to just be the happy mom.
You can see the children. They're healthy, inquisitive children who want to learn about their world. You don't see the stresses in the children.
Prevention, on a wide scale, could have a big impact, according to clinical psychologist Hilary Hodgdon, who co-directs the Complex Trauma Treatment Network.
If we could get rid of childhood trauma and maltreatment as a stressor, we'd actually be able to prevent most of the mental health conditions that we see.
An estimated 60 percent of U.S. adults had at least one adverse or traumatic experience as a child. Not all of them will need treatment, but for those who do, there are now a range of proven treatments to meet a range of needs.
Hodgdon says the treatments considered the most effective share some common principles.
There has been more of a focus to help kids have safe and secure relationships, to help kids build regulation skills, to help kids be able to process some of the difficult and painful experiences that they have had in their life.
We get deer, turkey.
For some, like 13-year-old Yary Betancourt, intensive and sustained treatment is needed.
Six years ago, after time in the foster care system, Yary and her two older brothers were adopted by Gabrielle and Luis Betancourt who live in Connecticut.
Gabrielle and Luis Betancourt: Her biological mother used substances and had some mental health conditions that made it difficult for her to parent. She went hungry for long periods of time.
That trauma often led to anxiety and fear of being abandoned.
Do you remember a little bit about some big emotions that you had maybe when your mom was in a different room?
I was scared. I thought she wouldn't come back.
To help her feel safer and manage those emotions, the Betancourts, tried a variety of treatments, including family and talk therapy. And for a while, they were helping, but then things changed.
Gabrielle and Luis Betancourt: When Yary started puberty, it was very difficult for her to regulate her emotions. And even though she had so many skills and she had worked so hard, it was very difficult to maintain her safely in the home.
After a lot of searching, they found a unique residential treatment program and school run by the Justice Resource Institute, a nonprofit that provides mental health care for those with trauma histories and special education needs.
Gabrielle and Luis Betancourt: They believe in Yary, and then they help Yary be the best that she can be.
The program helps caregivers and children build stronger, more understanding relationships, encourages kids to regulate their behavior through things like breathing techniques and exercise, when they are experiencing unhappy memories or thoughts, and builds resiliency by having kids spend time doing what they love.
And, for Yary, that included time with animals. After nearly two years of full-time care, Yary was finally able to move back home. Today, she still attends the program's day school and goes to weekly therapy sessions, all equipping her with effective trauma coping skills.
When my son has big emotions, one of the things we talk about is doing dragon breaths, and deep-in-and-out breaths. Did you do anything like that?
The monkey hug.
Oh, tell me, what's the monkey hug?
Where you do this and just tap back and forth slowly.
And when you do that, how do you feel?
Better. I feel good.
But the Betancourts are lucky. They live in Connecticut, where childhood trauma treatments are more accessible than in some parts of the country.
It's expensive, and no one wants to pay. But here's the thing. We do pay. Foster care is expensive. Having generation upon generation of trauma that perpetuates itself is expensive.
Those are some of the issues now driving efforts to expand mental health care access for children.
Schools are often on the front lines of the childhood trauma crisis in this country. Here in Connecticut, where a horrific shooting eight years ago continues to have a lingering impact, big investments were made to bring trauma-informed mental health services to children in schools.
Hope Bray is a social worker in the Newtown school district where that shooting occurred.
Here at Reed Intermediate School, Bray runs a program called Bounce Back. It's a voluntary trauma intervention, specifically designed for use in schools. Children who have been referred by school counselors meet for 10 group sessions, in addition to working with Bray one-on-one.
We're not referencing a particular trauma. We're talking about trauma or scary experiences, and then we kind of move on to, well, how might we feel if we have experienced trauma to kind of normalize the experiences that children have. Then we move on to, what can we do about it?
Bray says providing trauma treatment in schools can remove many of the financial and logistical barriers for families. But she sees another benefit too.
For a child where I don't know that they have a support system in home, I just don't know what it looks like, I know they have a support system in my building.
Success is being seen in schools and beyond. More than 15,000 kids in Connecticut have now received therapy that focuses on trauma, like Bounce Back.
Eighty percent have shown improvement in trauma symptoms, like depression, anxiety and PTSD. But Bray is concerned that much of the progress that's been made in her community could be upended by the pandemic.
The unfortunate fact is, not everybody is safe at home. We have a lot of children who are experiencing more fear, more uncertainty, more hunger. I think we're really going to need more trauma treatment.
Some trauma advocates say it's important to remember not everyone finds relief inside a therapist's office.
This is my spare bedroom, which is also my healing space.
Cissy White, a writer and childhood trauma survivor, has charted her own journey toward healing. She experienced a number of traumas, from divorce to physical and sexual abuse, all before the age of 10.
After more than a decade of talk therapy, she realized it wasn't working the way she needed it to.
It helped me understand there's a reason I'm feeling this way. There's cause and effect. But it didn't help my trauma symptoms. It didn't help me sleep. It didn't help digestion issues. It didn't help me feel calm.
Instead, she turned to less traditional therapies, like meditation, yoga and expressive writing, all practices she feels should be more widely available.
The things that most people are still going to get is talk therapy and medication. They're not super effective for post-traumatic stress. So, we still have that problem. And that's a big problem.
But she and many others we met during our reporting shared a resounding message of hope.
Trauma treatment is often treated like it's so depressing, but it gives you back your birthright to joy, to feeling safe, to feeling good in your skin, to being able to relate. It's triumphant.
There is always hope. And I'm not just saying that because it's my name, but, absolutely, we can turn that tide.
There might be some kids around the country watching this. What would you say to them?
That it'll get better. Someone's always there for you.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Connecticut.
Watch the Full Episode
Rachel Wellford is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour.
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: