May 02, 2018

Relationships with caring adults can heal childhood trauma

​By Terri Sorensen, President, Friends of the Children

Last month, Oprah Winfrey shed light on a topic that is too often hiding in the shadows of society: childhood trauma.

In her CBS 60 Minutes interview, Winfrey highlighted how adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, have devastating effects on children’s mental, physical, emotional and economic health and well-being.

The story also highlights why some children are more resilient than others:

“Really it boils down to something pretty simple,” says Dr. Bruce Perry, an ACEs expert whose work was profiled in the interview. “It’s relationships…somebody helped you pull up those boots.”

We couldn’t agree more. Our research has shown that the single most important factor for building resiliency is a long-term, consistent relationship with a caring adult.

It’s also why Friends of the Children’s innovative, evidence-based model works. We identify children with the least protective factors and the most risk factors. They come to us through the foster care system and high-poverty schools. We pair each child with a salaried, professional mentor, called a Friend, who stays with them from kindergarten through high school graduation – 12 ½ years, no matter what.

Our Friends build one-on-one relationships with our youth, working with them for 3-4 hours a week across all life settings – at school, at home and in the community. We provide stability and consistency and we become part of the family and the community.

Youth in our program are significantly affected by ACEs. Eighty-five percent of our youth have experienced three or more ACEs in their lifetime, and more than half have experienced six or more. In contrast, just under half­ (45%) of children nationwide have experienced one ACE, and only 11 percent have experienced three or more.

Research from Dr. Perry and other experts, such as Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, shows that ACEs are in direct relation to toxic stress, which lead to long-term mental, emotional, social and physical health problems, including depression, substance abuse and obesity.

ACEs also disproportionately affect communities of color. This matters to us because 81 percent of our youth come from communities of color. Many of our youth experience racial discrimination, inequality and economic disparities, in addition to multiple ACEs.

We are especially proud of the youth who graduate from our program: 83 percent graduate from high school, 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system and 98 percent avoid early parenting.

Practicing trauma-informed care provides connection to potential paths for healing families and youth. We train staff to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma. We respond by working to integrate that knowledge into our practices and policies. Most importantly, we seek to actively resist re-traumatization.

We have seen so many of our graduates go on to lead happy, healthy lives. This includes Patrick, who came from one of the most challenging situations. He was only six years old when he was paired with his Friend, Carlos. Now a college graduate, Patrick credits Carlos and Friends of the Children for keeping his life from spiraling out of control.

"There were several times in my life where I could've made a wrong decision had I not been with Carlos," says Patrick.

Children who have suffered from trauma face the greatest challenges and often need intensive, long-term interventions. Unfortunately, too many children are slipping through the cracks.

By lending her powerful voice to childhood trauma, Winfrey has singlehandedly reframed childhood trauma. When meeting people who have struggled in life, Winfrey now asks, “What happened to you?” rather than, “What’s wrong with you?”

Imagine what would happen if we could give every child a long-term, consistent, caring adult to be with them for the long haul. Whether it’s a parent, a family member, a teacher or a mentor, building trusting relationships with children can lead to life-altering outcomes.

We are honored to be able to walk alongside our youth for 12 ½ years. The outcomes are remarkable. Join us so that we can bring our model to 25 cities by 2025. Take the Give Kids a Friend pledge today.