In Philadelphia, a woman who suffered years of sexual abuse by her father learns to dance out her rage and shame in movement therapy workshops offered at her neighborhood health clinic.
And in Walla Walla, Washington, an alternative high school has seen suspensions plummet since staff started approaching kids with a new question in mind—not “What’s wrong with you?” but “What happened to you?”
From Alberta, Canada to Tarpon Springs, Florida, a large-scale movement is changing the way we think about health and illness, human suffering and strength. Publication of the landmark study on what we call Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) showed that common types of early adversity—such as neglect, physical, verbal or sexual abuse, or having a parent with a mental illness—raised the risk for a host of physical, emotional and social problems later in life.
Since then, advances in neuroscience have begun to explain how this happens. Trauma leaves tracks in the developing brain. Stress literally gets under the skin, affecting the immune system, heart health, even the expression of our genes. And when early adversity results—sometimes years later—in poor school performance, substance abuse, violence or mental illness, all of us pay the price: Out-of-control health care costs. Lost days of work. Squandered human potential.
But ACEs are not destiny, and early trauma does not have to dictate a life story. Research shows that protective factors—chiefly, the presence of a nurturing adult—can cushion the impact of adversity in a child’s life.
That’s why this cookbook focuses on resilience. Resilience has been shown to buffer the impact of suffering or stress. Resilience isn’t just a gift of nature or an exercise of will; resilience grows through positive experiences, supportive environments and the caring intervention of others.
Individuals are resilient when they reflect on and grow from their own mistakes. Families show resilience when they rally after a death or a loss. Communities shine with resilience when they use their strengths—the stories and skills of their elders, the exuberance of their children, their sense of connectedness, their openness to new learning and research—to manage the challenges of economic, environmental or cultural change and to support the individuals within the community.
Resilience is the capacity to thrive in both good times and difficult ones. And it can be built and nourished at any age, in every human being.
When people learn about the ACE Study, they have a range of reactions, from sorrow to outrage to relief at having a framework—finally—that explains their own or others’ behavior. Then they ask, “What can I do?”
This cookbook aims to answer that question. Whether you are the director of a YMCA, the head of a county health department, a sheriff, a school principal, a pediatrician or a parent, it will offer you context, definitions and questions to help you think about building resilience where you live. It will describe how communities in the United States and Canada are putting the theories of ACEs and resilience into practice.
There is no single recipe for resilience. But thanks to the work of scientists, physicians, social workers, psychologists, educators and many others who are passionately engaged in this work, we are starting to learn how to prevent and ameliorate ACEs at both the individual and community level. We hope you will share these examples and concepts with others—members of your faith community, parents in your neighborhood, educators at your local school, your colleagues in the fields of health and human behavior, public safety experts, academics and elected officials—and make connections within and across all those groups.
Information about ACEs—their prevalence, their effects, and the potential for healing—needs to become common knowledge that will bolster a grass-roots movement for change. By thinking, talking and working together, from living rooms to clinic offices to legislative chambers, we can foster healthier, more vibrant lives for every child, teenager and adult.