ON THE SCENE: Addressing childhood adversity and trauma

Dr. Alexis Brieant, PhD., assistant professor, Department of Psychological Science University of Vermont and its FERN Lab and Jessica Wegrzyn, director of learning support services at North Country School (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Growing up in the North Country can be challenging for many youths. It was in the early 1950s and 1960s, and, in many respects, it is even more so today.

Back then, we had school bullies, high levels of employment, especially during the off-season, and poverty. We also had many assets; several churches had vital youth programs, we had many sports opportunities such as a robust Pee Wee program, and some afterschool activities, like the art classes taught by Sydney d’Avignon that were open to adults and youth. We also had strong neighborhoods, several with parks, where kids could play together after school.

What we didn’t have was the internet, online bullying and body shaming, radical changes in the weather and the threat of worldwide catastrophe caused by climate change, the omnipresence of the media in our daily lives, hyper levels of political polarization, and nearly daily reporting on mass shootings, many that involve kids. Further, class sizes are shrinking; young people don’t have as many people their age to play or be involved in sports with.

Additionally, we have agencies like the Shipman Youth Center, the Lake Placid/Wilmington Connecting Youth and Communities Coalition, Olympic Regional Development Authority, Lake Placid Center for the Arts, Mid’s Park concerts and many world-class venues. Way more kids hike today than ever, and mountain biking has become popular. We also have initiatives like the Wild Center’s Youth Summit, which has engaged area youth in collective initiatives that empower them to tackle climate change.

So, while there are pluses and negatives to life in the 1950s and 1960s as well as today, childhood adversity and trauma are on the rise, so much so that society as a whole is becoming more aware of mental and social health concerns faced by young people in particular. The good news is that a growing body of research is becoming available to help teachers, parents, and others who work with young people learn how to reduce the impact of stressors and improve resiliency.

As a means of helping their staff and area educators learn about research underway at UVM’s Family, Environment, Resilience, and Neurodevelopment Lab, on Jan. 24 North Country School & Camp Treetops invited area middle school educators and others working with adolescents to a presentation by Dr. Alexis Brieant, PhD., assistant professor, Department of Psychological Science UVM and its FERN Lab. The FERN Lab studies how and why stress and adversity affect brain development and mental health during childhood and adolescence.

Dr. Brieant began by saying that her research is motivated by the reality that children experiencing adversity is very common; more than half of all people in the United States will experience at least one adverse event before they are 18, be that bullying (in person or online), a family trauma, neglect and economic hardship to name a few. She said that research is showing that these experiences can affect the way the brain develops as well as a child’s mental health, impacts that can affect them throughout life.

Dr. Brieant wishes to understand how a child’s adverse experiences impact their mental health and what can be taken to improve resiliency.

According to their research, up to 50% of youth develop a mental health disorder following adversity. The impact is often internalized and has external symptoms. Internal examples include anxiety, depression, withdrawal and somatic symptoms, which can consist of having a focus on physical symptoms, such as pain, weakness or shortness of breath. Externalizing symptoms include anger, aggression, inattention and conduct problems, which can lead to substance abuse. These outcomes and how we address them differ with age, life experiences and between boys and girls.

“We know that the brain is developing in complex and profound ways across the first couple decades of life,” said Dr. Brieant. “It’s important to know that many kids show resilience following an adverse experience, so our research also focuses on understanding what enables that.”

She pointed out that not all aspects of the brain develop at the same rate; it develops from the back, the brain stem, to front, the prefrontal cortex. Thus, when children experience an adverse experience related to their brain’s development, it will impact how they process that experience.

“Interesting is that the affective systems, or emotional processing, demonstrate relatively faster patterns of development; during early adolescence, kids have strong patterns of development,” said Dr. Brieant. “They are tuned into emotional stimuli and have strong emotional responses, consistent with our general conceptualization of adolescence. Because of this, we see heightened sensitivity to environmental influences, both positive and negative.”

Dr. Brieant took a deep dive into the research, illustrating many factors that can impact youth positively and negatively and how important positive role models and community support can be, especially in light of the radical increase in stimuli coming at youth in all directions.

Dr. Brieant said that resiliency is the norm, that in effect, young people are geared toward developing resiliency, but they need help; they need responsive and supportive caregivers, they need safe places and safe ways of expressing their emotions, such as through the arts, participating in physical exercise and being in nature. Best, is to seek ways of reducing stress, reducing time online, and making available therapeutic sessions and mental health professionals. Equally important is helping families earn livable wages, access affordable housing and quality food, feel valued and have the necessary health care and support services.

Dr. Brieant said consistency is crucial. Kids need mentors, positive support over time, and help working through difficult emotions by developing core life skills that can help buffer the effects of toxic stress.

“I pulled this event together because I am looking for professional development opportunities for our faculty and colleagues in our region’s schools so that we are all growing stronger together,” said Jessica Wegrzyn, director of learning support services at North Country School. “I want to help all of us develop our students’ ability and understand factors that promote resilience.”

“I thought Dr. Brieant did a wonderful job of informing professionals and parents of information related to kids and resiliency,” said Mary Michelfelder.

Further information is available through UVM FERN Lab’s website: https://www.fernlab-uvm.com.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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