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It all starts in early childhood

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

There are many quotations about the importance of the human experience of childhood. The best known is: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” This is attributed to either St Ignatius of Loyola or St Francis Xavier, the co-founders of the Jesuit order, but also to Aristotle who seems to have said everything before everybody else.

Another noted founder, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, is supposed to have said: “Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.” Hah!

The Roman Catholic church replied with Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” The Bible says a lot of strange things but this one most will agree with.

In fact everyone agrees with any form of the statement.

Science makes similar claims: “Brains are built over time, from the bottom up.” “The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into childhood.” Or, “Toxic stress (chronic, unrelenting stress in early childhood, caused by extreme poverty, repeated abuse or severe maternal depression) damages developing brain architecture, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behaviour and physical and mental health.”

Another way of putting it is that persistent fear and anxiety can affect young children’s learning and development. It’s not only active stressful situations. The persistent absence of responsive care disrupts the developing brain. This is what happens when the baby or child cries for help and is repeatedly ignored.

Why don’t people act on these beliefs? Why do we ignore children? Why do we allow children to be abused? Doesn’t that influence their mental and emotional and sexual development into adulthood? Why do we allow children to become obese? Doesn’t that influence their physical health as adults?

The answer is simple. Parents are too busy with their lives to be overly concerned about their children.

Busy today means spending four hours a day driving to and from work to make enough money either to just get by or making so much money that you can pay someone to take care of your child.

Schools are too busy teaching children how to take SEA so that they can have the Minister of Education come take pictures with the successful candidates. Governments are concerned with getting back into power and children do not vote, so that’s that. 

In a small island society where Government controls the money, no one in business wants to upset the coconut cart so Government gets away with abandoning children until they grow up and start causing trouble when attempts are made to buy them off by calling them “community leaders” or “village elders.”

True, the Early Childhood Care and Education programme (ECCE) is an attempt to address the problem but it starts too late in the life of the child (three years) and has run into a series of problems involving the building of the Centres and the employment status of its teachers. 

It is now almost 20 years since the first study demonstrating the link between adverse childhood experiences and adult disease was published. The “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults,” also called the The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study came out in 1998.

“Seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were studied: psychological, physical or sexual abuse; violence against mother; or living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or ever imprisoned. The number of categories of these adverse childhood experiences was then compared to measures of adult risk behaviour, health status and disease.”

People who had experienced four or more categories of adverse childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had four- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and suicide attempt; a two- to four-fold increase in smoking and poor self-rated health; a strong possibility of having over 50 sexual intercourse partners over a life-time plus a sexually transmitted disease as well as a 1.4- to 1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity.

The number of categories of adverse childhood exposures showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures and liver disease, ie the more ACEs you had the greater the possibility of having one or more of the above.

The most prevalent of the seven categories of childhood exposure was substance abuse in the household, one in four; the least prevalent exposure category was evidence of criminal behaviour in the household (3.4 per cent). More than half of respondents experienced more than one category of adverse childhood exposure; 6.2 per cent reported more than four exposures.

OK, now apply this to our population. How many of our children experience psychological abuse? I would say over 75 per cent. Physical? Sexual? How many live with mothers who regularly get beaten up? Or live with people on drugs or who are mentally ill or suicidal? Or have been in prison? 

If you don’t know, neither do I, your guess is as good as mine. Or try working backwards. How many adult Trinis are at risk for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and suicide attempt? Or have had over 50 sexual partners? Or a sexually transmitted disease? Obese anyone?

It starts in early childhood. That’s where we have to be putting the money. The Bible say so. Lenin say so. Even saints say is so!


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