Visiting expert sheds light on adverse childhood experiences

Wednesday, Jan 18th 2017

Robert Lieberman knows first-hand the impact that trauma can have on a person — even when that person has been trained, like he has, to help others deal with tragedy. Not too long ago, Lieberman was the first to arrive at the scene of a car accident and witnessed the death of his mother-in-law. “I didn’t know how to handle it,” he said. “Even with all of my experience in the field. I still froze.”

Lieberman, CEO of the Grants Pass based Kairos Strategic Leadership, a youth mental health nonprofit, recounted his experience before a packed crowd of educators, mental health and medical professionals, law enforcement officers and social workers at the Curry County Event Center on the Beach. They gathered Jan. 5 to learn more about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) movement, and use the information to help Curry County’s young people struggling with the toxic stress from experiences such as child abuse, neglect and poverty. “It was the helpfulness of a knowledgeable quick responder, well versed in this kind of disaster, that helped me get through a really bad place until I was able to have the presence of my wife,” Lieberman said. Lieberman shared his personal experience to show how harmful stimuli can short-circuit normal thinking.

 Lieberman cited research that shows children are among the most vulnerable. With that in mind, the ACE movement was born, with the hope that by studying recent breakthroughs in brain development and the impacts of trauma on health and social skills, innovative and effective “trauma-informed” approaches can be made in health care, education, human services, public safety and workforce development.

 Lieberman said he is seeing a huge increase in the number of children who struggle with the damaging effects of adverse circumstances. ACEs are identified in three categories:

  • Household dysfunction: Substance abuse, parental separation or divorce, mental illness, battered mothers and criminal behavior in their home.
  • Neglect: Emotional and physical.
  • Abuse: Emotional, physical and sexual.

Children try to survive in these situations any way they can, according to Lieberman. “I’m seeing more kids at risk. A lot more than 10 or 20 years ago,” Lieberman said. “Kids who find themselves in highly stressful environments have no choice but to be in a constant state of hyper-awareness of their surroundings,” he said. “They simply don’t feel like they can let their guards down.” Being “On all the time creates an ongoing cortisol spike in a child’s brain and puts ‘the survival instinct’ on overdrive, all the time. It’s proving in extensive and replicated research of the problem, to be permanently damaging.”

He points to scientific advances in brain mapping. MRI imaging illuminates the destructive effect these stress hormones have on the spidery neural pathways called synapses, from which memory forms. Synapse creation is strongest between the ages of 0 to 5. Lieberman said that during this time when children’s brains tend to learn more and retain more about their world because they feel safe and secure. But the opposite holds true for children at risk. “What the MRI imaging reveals is what appears to be black holes in the areas of the brain that are used for thinking, creating and reasoning,” he said.

By comparison, the MRIs of children without adverse surroundings show neurons that are healthy and functioning. This kind of neural damage has far-reaching implications, often burdening these children with social, emotional and cognitive impairment through the remainder of childhood and into their adult life. This often leads to risky, unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, alcohol, drug use, and sexual promiscuity, or it can lead to obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, anger and other health problems.

The good news is, the brain is “plastic, and it wants to heal”, he said. The brain is continually changing in response to its environment. If the toxic stress stops and is replaced with experiences that build resilience, the brain can slowly undo many of the stress-induced damages. Lieberman said individuals and communities can choose to make decisions that provide experiences that promote the key elements of resilience: individual capabilities, attachment and belonging, community, culture and spirituality. The goal of the ACE Interface program goal is to train people whose work brings them in contact with at-risk children and who can teach other qualified professionals. Another goal is to increase public awareness of Adverse Childhood Experiences. There is progress being made, and Lieberman hopes that awareness of these issues will lead to a better life for kids, adults and families, in schools, work-places and society as a whole. “This is really good — a most extensive training tool,” said Rich Standiford, a Langlois Integrated Behavioral Health Specialists who works in the Bandon area. “I see the things he talks about every day in my job. This will help tremendously.”