“There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Maya Angelou

Childhood adversity directly affects more than half of the global population and severely affects a quarter of it. Indirectly it affects everyone. Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs cost trillions of dollars annually, even though they can be prevented for a fraction of that cost.

We need to provide societies with the vocabulary to talk about ACEs. The late novelist James Baldwin said that we often think our deepest pain is unique to us and unprecedented. It is not. When we read Dickens or Dostoevsky or listen to Gil Scott-Heron or Aretha Franklin we realise that adversity is one of the most common ingredients in all cultures. I have done public speaking on ACEs and toxic stress in twenty-five countries. At the end of each speech, I am usually met by a queue of people wanting to share their stories with me – an empathetic witness.

Many of our stories remain untold because they are either buried deep in the subconscious or we have no vocabulary to narrate them or no faith in being heard. Some untold stories about abuse and neglect in childhood have caused immense, even irreparable damage.

The negative impact of these experiences may last a lifetime and are the principal preventable causes of mental illness, addiction and violence. We know that organised crime and violent extremist groups are laser-focused on recruiting teens with high ACE scores. They may not know the science of trauma, but they know how to network that trauma into a force for violence and extremism. There is also a profound correlation between ACEs and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and cancer.   

A quarter of 2020 Oscar-nominated films had a script with a main character who tried to overcome childhood trauma by finding a trusted counterpart to share their anguish with. The films show how trauma narrows our world, creates chaos and pain in our lives. The volume of Oscar scripts on trauma reflects an increasing public desire to turn the spotlight on ACEs. Many people are becoming trauma conscious. This is not because the problem is a recent one but because the associated shame and stigma are receding. Childhood adversity has always been with us but now seems like a good time to disrupt its intergenerational cycles.

To conceal the untold stories, we suppress our true selves. This is uncomfortable and stifling. Through connection, attachment and belonging we can recover and speak our truth. Famed addiction expert Dr Gabor Maté describes this as Post Traumatic Wisdom. As a late recoveree from a relentlessly brutal children’s home background, I have described it as ‘turning the lights on’.

Over the past decades, some risk factors contributing to abuse and neglect have improved. For instance, there is increased awareness of good child development practices, including the growing rejection of corporal punishment. But even though we have seen improvements, some challenges such as social isolation have worsened, and recently Covid-19 has been a turbo-booster for increased neglect and abuse.

We urgently need to start building a world free of ACEs. Four simple evidence-based steps can help us accelerate this work:

  1. Every new parent should be guaranteed a minimum of 5-7 home visits or group sessions on parenting in the first year of the child’s life, followed by ‘booster sessions’ to support key childhood milestones.
  2. Every child should attend a school where they are respected, feel connected, and seen. Where they know they matter and will be supported if they are affected by adversity at home or elsewhere.
  3. Every community should be encouraged to have conversations about adversity and trauma on their own cultural terms. Such conversations will remove stigma and shame, promote understanding, empathy, and facilitate the creation of solutions. They will also provide the vocabulary that survivors need to tell their stories.
  4. As mentioned before, ACEs cost trillions of dollars annually, even though they can be prevented for a fraction of that cost. Ministries of finance should analyse the costs of childhood adversity on health, wellbeing, crime, violence and addiction and adjust government budgets to focus on prevention.

These four simple interventions aim to ensure that every child has two levels of buffering from adversity through primary (parental) and secondary (school) attachments and that these are underscored by increased public awareness and investment.

Before we got stranded somewhere between the war on terror and culture wars, child mortality had been dramatically reduced by making vaccines and other basic health interventions widely available. Similarly, there would be no nobler way of making sense of our age for future generations than ensuring every child grows up free from the burden of toxic stress and untold stories.

Benjamin Perks is the Head of Campaigns and Advocacy at UNICEF HQ in New York. He is also a member of the Policy Advisory Group on the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, and a Senior Fellow at the Jubilee Centre, University of Birmingham, UK. He has served as the UNICEF Representative and UN Resident Coordinator to the Republic of North Macedonia, and the Republic of Montenegro. In both capacities, he advocated for reforms to fulfil international human rights commitments and for the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals. He has also served in Georgia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, India, and Albania. In northern Afghanistan, he helped to coordinate a Back-to-School campaign that brought 3 million children, including 1 million girls, into schools. He is recognised as a public speaker on violence against children and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). His TEDx talk on ACEs can be found here. He wrote this piece for PREE in a personal capacity.