Looking back on how and why I began my career, I can’t help but be reminded of my childhood adversities. Through the years, I’ve delved into the research of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the negative lifelong consequences. This includes the brain’s response to trauma and adversity. It amazes me how pliable our brains are, especially our ability to create new pathways. Of course, it’s always easier to continue down the same pathways we’ve created, whether positive or negative. The neurological pathways developed within a child’s brain depend on the child’s protective factors.
In 1995, the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente conducted an extensive research study that changed how we see child adversities. This study looked into three different categories: abuse, household challenges, and neglect. Each one of those categories had subcategories that addressed ten adversities: child abuse (sexual, physical, and emotional), parental incarceration, substance abuse in the home, domestic violence, mental health, divorce/separation, and neglect (physical and emotional). Each adversity was scored with a single point in the study if someone had experienced it during childhood. The higher the ACE score, the higher the probability of life-long negative consequences such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and death by suicide.
Many adults are still unfamiliar with the ACE study. However, once surveyed, 6 in 10 adults report experiencing at least one ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 reports experiencing four or more different types of ACEs. I have experienced 7 of the 10. Statistically speaking, my outcome as an adult was grim. If I had allowed research to predict my future, I would have given up all hope long ago. So what stopped me? Why have I not thrown in the towel?
My mother and father divorced when I was three years old. I split my time between my mother and father (who lived with my grandparents). My mother remarried when I was 5 to someone who sexually abused me, was physically abusive to my brother, and was so violent towards my mother that my trauma brain took over and erased most of my memories from this time. In addition to the chaos at home, I had to navigate the death of my biological father when I was just 7 years old.
Eventually, my mother divorced my abuser, although the scars he was responsible for lingered. Adversities and abuse were so prevalent that it often felt wrong when I was in a safe space or around people who showed they cared. I had to learn how not to self-sabotage or self-doubt. I was not different from others who experienced adversities. It is difficult for the brain to create new pathways of understanding that abuse isn’t normal. This is the way the trauma brain works. It’s a physiological survival response that is associated with toxic stress related to ACEs and trauma.
The more often this response continues without intervention, the deeper those grooves or neurological pathways are created in the brain, making maladaptive behaviors easier to rely on as a normal response. This also means the brain’s architecture is actually changing. Overexposure to ACEs or trauma becomes toxic. This toxic stress can change a child’s epigenetic makeup caused by a flood of chemicals in the brain, released without an off switch.
The more I learned about child adversities in my career, the more I began to realize the impact that my grandparents, specifically my grandma, had on my ability to overcome the odds. Having someone intervene to show hope, build resilience, and support perseverance in overcoming adversities is vital to the healing process.
Now that we are more familiar with ACEs, we know that the most positive protective factors for children who face adversities are creating safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments to support them. This, I believe, is what my grandparents created for us during our most formattable years of development. They didn’t know what was happening at our other house. They simply allowed for a safe and secure place for us to be kids. I remember planting rhubarb in the garden, picking plums and apricots, and cooking in the kitchen with my grandma. I have fond memories of how her pillows smelled like mint and the strange smell of old material in her closet she stashed away for me in cardboard barrels to practice sewing with her when I came to visit. Some of my favorite memories are watching Matlock with my grandpa and Murder She Wrote with my grandma or listening to bluegrass on the radio. I was safe with my grandparents. Their house was full of laughter, playfulness, kindness, and adventure. Still, I use mint on my pillows at night because it is calming and brings a sense of peace.
Out of the 22 years of working in trauma, the most important thing that I have learned is that the brain is powerful, and adversities are not predictive. I became the first person in my family to graduate college and received multiple scholarships, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Michael Schultz scholarships for academic achievement. Not only did I graduate college, but I earned a Ph.D. in Child Development. I traveled the world at the age of 19 and have since visited 12 countries. I have lived a life full of adventure that includes scuba diving the Fujikawa Maru in Micronesia, ranked one of the top 10 diving wrecks in the world to walking the halls of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. One of my most significant accomplishments has been chasing my dream of building my own consulting business and doing what I love most; improving the lives of those who have experienced trauma.
When the right protective factors are in place, such as hope, support, kindness, and love, the brain can create positive pathways and adaptive behaviors. My grandma was my primary trauma disrupter. She inspired me to live a life that can only be described as joyful. Every day I pass her picture in my office with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. As caregivers, parents, and educators, you can be a trauma disrupter too. The key is to create positive environments which foster stable and supportive relationships.
The Department of Justice collaborated with Futures Without Violence to establish the Five Healing Gestures to help children overcome adversities. These healing gestures include:
1) Celebrate their accomplishments.
2) Provide comfort.
3) Show an interest in them and their desires.
4) Ask them for their opinion.
5) Inspire them to take positive risks.
Children who experience adversities often lack the positive connections at home that are so vital to normal development. Creating that safe space and allowing for children to be children, disrupts those negative neural pathways and encourages the creation of new neurological connections, reinforcing a child’s belief that they are lovable, capable, and deserve a safe childhood without violence or adversity. ❦
About Deaneé Johnson PhD
Deaneé Johnson is a key player in advancing the field of responding to trauma and child adversities, specifically responding to child victims of sexual exploitation and polyvictimization.
She has over 20 years of experience working directly with victims and survivors, partnering with multidisciplinary professionals and teams who meet the needs of child victims and their families. She started as a volunteer mentor for adolescent sexual assault survivors in 1999 in Huntsville, Texas. She has since worked as a Survivor Specialist, Child Forensic Interviewer, Director of a statewide sexual assault coalition, and Director of a Court Appointed Special Advocates program in Southern Maryland. She has recently led the working group focused on the victim services component of the 2016 National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction out of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Deputy Attorney General. She serves on the National Steering Committee for the Vision 21 Linking Systems of Care for Children and Youth, Office for Victims of Crime demonstration project. She is the Chairwoman for Preparedness Without Paranoia Advisory Board (www.pwporg.org). She is also an adjunct professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas in the Department of Victim Studies. Dr. Johnson has advised large-scale training and technical assistance efforts, policy and procedure implementation plans, organization management endeavors and collaborated with many federal and state agencies serving child victims. She is a certified facilitator with Stewards of Children, has advanced training in child forensic interviewing, and interviewing child victims of sex trafficking.
Dr. Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a master’s degree in counseling, and her Ph.D. in child development. As an OVC Fellow, she has assisted with collaboration with the DOJ ODAG to identify the range of child sexual exploitation programs available nationwide, illuminating best practices. She was most recently the Chief Program Officer at the National Center for Victims of Crime before building her own consulting business, Ascent Connection and Consulting Solutions (ACCS Online), where she leads a group of consultants who pave the way for victim service providers, ensuring the needs of the most vulnerable populations are met through strategic collaboration and coordinated efforts. She is an advanced open-water, high-altitude, and nitrox certified scuba diver, adventure hiker, and enjoys kayaking and foraging wild food.