Steve Adubato, PhD, recently sat down with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a compelling author, pediatrician and entrepreneur, for an interview on his public television series Caucus: New Jersey with Steve Adubato. Dr. Burke Harris is Founder of the Center for Youth Wellness and the Surgeon General of California. She has played an integral role in bringing the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to a wide audience through her book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, and her 2014 Ted Talk, How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime, which has been viewed nearly five million times.
Adubato: What have you seen as a pediatrician that has focused your efforts on the topic of adverse childhood experiences?
Burke Harris: As a pediatrician, I have seen a lot of children who were referred to me with various issues. Parents were bringing in their children, saying, “Please, I think my child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He needs Ritalin. Can you put him on some medicine?” As a doctor, when I investigated how early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children, what I found was that for most of the kids I was seeing, Ritalin actually wasn’t the right prescription. What I was seeing was their bodies’ normal reaction to the abnormal experiences that they were dealing with. Things like domestic violence or having a parent who is mentally ill or substance dependent—these things can be common in a family, but are really harmful to a child’s development and well-being. Adversity in childhood can lead to an overactive stress response, which is what we call the toxic stress response, and this can lead to lots of health problems down the line.
Adubato: I think we can all understand that there would be short-term effects on children experiencing these adverse experiences, but you also describe some very significant long-term effects. Can you explain that further?
Burke Harris: When we talk about the effects of early adversity, for a lot of us it’s common sense that if you have a rough childhood, you may be more likely as an adult to drink and smoke, or experience depression or other mental health or behavioral conditions. But now, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente have shown that high levels of adverse childhood experiences can dramatically increase one’s risk for heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease later in life. That was surprising to many people. It has been a fascinating journey for me as a doctor to begin to uncover how it is that early adversity leads to an increased risk of all these different health problems.
Adubato: When we talk about children exposed to these adverse experiences, are we also talking about very young children who may not even remember what happened?
Burke Harris: Absolutely. Many people think, “My child was too little to remember what happened, and therefore, it probably didn’t affect him.” But what we now know is that those earliest years—the zero to three-year time period—is a time of what we call critical and sensitive periods in brain development, when these harmful experiences can have an even greater impact on long-term health. Helping children have a healthy start right from the beginning is absolutely critical in preventing these long-term effects.
Adubato: When it comes to political discourse among the leaders in our nation, I’ve never heard one major political figure talk in detail about any of this. Is it something they don’t know about?
Burke Harris: Our political leadership is being awakened to this issue. This past June, I provided testimony at a congressional hearing about the topic of toxic stress when the issue of immigration policy and separating kids from their caregivers at the border was an important concern. When we have kids who have gone through adversity and who are coming to our country as refugees because of the trauma that they are leaving, and then we set a policy of separating them from their caregivers, we are knowingly inflicting physical harm and putting their health at risk. As a nation, we have to understand that once we know this science, we can’t unknow it or disregard it. We must use it to inform our policies.
Adubato: How can we advocate for children who may have been exposed to ACEs?
Burke Harris: It is critically important for pediatricians to screen for adverse childhood experiences in the primary care setting. We now know that early intervention improves outcomes. We need to start from the very beginning, which means raising awareness with parents. The message should be that you don’t have to hand down your adversity to your kids. There’s actually a tremendous amount of healing that can happen. What the science shows us is that when stressful or traumatic things occur and activate a child’s stress response, the way that we buffer the response is with a safe, stable and nurturing caregiving relationship. This is why I have dedicated my professional life to raising national awareness and helping clinicians to gain the tools to be able to address toxic stress in children.
Steve Adubato, PhD, is a four-time Emmy® Awardwinning anchor for Thirteen/WNET (PBS) and NJTV (PBS), and has appeared on the TODAY Show, CNN and FOX as a media and communication expert. Steve currently anchors three television series produced by the Caucus Educational Corporation (CEC): Think Tank with Steve Adubato, State of Affairs with Steve Adubato and One-on-One with Steve Adubato.