The Resilience Summit: Addressing Childhood Adversity

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Eye for Ebony

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Eye for Ebony

Dr. Burke Harris begins by pointing out that is important to recognize that, as much as we try to protect our children, sometimes adversity is inevitable.  These things happen in the world.

All the research tells us that these safe, nurturing relationships actually biologically buffer a child’s developing stress response.  However, a lot of the adversities that are major stressors for kids don’t just affect the child, they affect family systems.  Events that are stressful for a child are also likely to be stressful for their caregiver.  In order to have the reserve energy to manage stress for others, as well as for ourselves, it is crucial to be practising regular self-care.  She states that this provides the reserve from which we draw in order to be there for our children, our family. 

What does this look like, day to day?  It may mean taking that time to go for a walk, even if it means taking the kids with you.  Regular exercise helps to build energy and neuro-plasticity, and release stress hormones, for both you and your child.

Tips for parents (and children):

  • Take time for regular exercise
  • Get enough regular sleep (build a regular sleep routine)
  • Practice meditation (this can also help us to get better sleep)

Brain development is experience-dependent, and most active before a child’s 6th birthday.  However, we have the capacity for neuroplasticity throughout our lives, and our environments shape the way that our brains respond to our experiences. 

Dr. Burke Harris notes that all parents will, on occasion, experience frustration, anxiety and anger in response to behaviour on the part of their child, especially if the child’s action creates a dangerous situation that triggers the parent’s own fight/flight/freeze response.  To create safety, and also to model appropriate behaviour, it is sometimes wise to say, “Look, Mum needs a time out.  We need to talk about what just happened, but I need a few minutes to calm myself down before we talk.”  By taking a moment when you are really activated to take a deep breath and calm down, you can reduce your levels of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.

The other important thing, she stresses, is to overtly connect to core values, for example:  “I love you.  Hitting is not okay.  I would never hit you.  I can’t allow you to be hitting your (sibling/friend).  This is not okay.  You are always safe in our home, and it is my job to make sure that everyone else is going to be safe as well.”

When asked, “What can an adult who is grappling with the residue of toxic stress in their own childhood do today?”  Dr. Burke Harris responds that the science shows us that there are a number of things that really address the biology of a dis-regulated stress response.  There are some practices that are really evidence-based that help to improve our biology. 

Practices for improving your biology:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Mindfulness
  • Mental Health
  • Healthy Relationships

All of these things have been shown to reduce stress hormones, reduce inflammation, enhance neuro-plasticity, and reducing the risk that our cells will prematurely age.  She notes that the first step to healing, or improving your biology is recognizing that you may have an overactive stress response and understanding the effects.  Once you understand that, you can begin to work out what works well for you as an individual.  She suggests that looking for opportunities within one’s own cultural framework to find supports can be valuable (e.g. elders, leaders within a faith community) – someone with whom you can have regular conversation at a deeper level than regular, surface-level, social interaction.  Overlaying that with an improved sleep routine and talking with a medical professional, finding community access points for better quality nutrition – the more of the six practices one can overlap, the greater likelihood of creating healthy change in stress response patterns and general health.  She also notes that working with a doctor to address adverse childhood experiences, even if this is a learning process for you both, may help in accessing references to a nutritionist or to clinical support.

In discussing the reparative power of love, of giving and receiving, and of healing in community with others, Dr. Burke Harris talks about how personally rewarding this piece of her work has been.  A lot of people who have experienced adverse experiences in childhood feel isolated, that they are alone.  They hold shame around their experiences and feel they will be blamed if they share their story with others.  However, the studies have shown that over half the American population have had negative childhood experiences.  She stresses that it is important to have these conversations.  There are many people working on this issue and committed to creating healing.  She says, “Together we are powerful.  When we raise our voices in love and healing, we are powerful, more powerful than any negative narrative of self-doubt or blame or stigma or hate.”  Healing is possible.  She sees it every day in her own clinical practice; she sees it in the broader community; and she sees real evidence that the conversation is being raised to a national level. 

One of the fascinating findings has been, that for people who did not receive adequate love in their developing years, having opportunities to give love (whether it be through a pet, through growing plants, through be-friending neighbours, through volunteering in community), can foster their own healing.  Dr. Burke Harris relates her own experience of the healing power of gardening when she and her husband were grieving the loss of one of their sons.  Getting her hands into the soil and getting connected to that cycle of life, the concept that life springs forth again, were powerful restoratives to her own emotional balance.

At  you will find a detailed explanation of Toxic Stress and its impact on children.  This information package from Stress Health outlines toxic stress in children, using information from the ACE study, and its potential impacts on adult health and longevity.  It outlines the signs and risk factors for children, and offers practical tips on how to strengthen the building blocks of healthy relationships, sleep, nutrition, exercise, mental health and mindfulness, to develop stress resilience in children.


Nelli Agbulos