Childhood Trauma Affects Us ALL!
On Valentine’s Day in 2018, Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people and injured 17 others in Parkland, Florida… the worst school shooting on record.
On New Year’s Eve in 2018, Tevin Biles-Thomas, the brother of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, killed three people at a house party in Cleveland, Ohio.
Last week in Alabama, 14-year-old Mason Sisk killed his entire family, including his father, stepmother, and three siblings.
Many people do not want the names of these killers used in the media, and understandably so. I would never try to excuse what they did. But I do want people to know that these violent perpetrators are human. They were children. And they suffered tremendous childhood trauma at an early age. Their lives didn’t have to turn out this way. And it is possible that tragedies like these could have been avoided with early intervention.
I don’t believe people are born inherently good or bad, but life circumstances can drastically change their personality, attitude, and outcome. Children need healthy attachment to a trusted adult in order to feel safe and protected. These early bonds set the stage for relationships with others for the rest of their lives. When this bonding is lacking, a child’s ability to feel empathy, to trust others, and to form solid relationships can be drastically affected. These children use anger to form a protective shield, and, if not treated, can turn self-destructive, violent, and even criminal. Let’s look at where these particular stories began:
Nikolas Cruz was placed in foster care by his mentally ill, alcoholic, drug-addicted birthmother (who was also a convicted criminal) and adopted into a family. At the age of 5, his father passed away, and a few years later, his mother died. He again entered the foster care system and struggled to bond with anyone.
Tevin Biles-Thomas was born to a drug-addicted mother and removed from her care multiple times for severe abuse and neglect. His siblings were split up and raised in two different homes in two different states. He never made a secure attachment to a caregiver.
Mason Sikes was taken away from his birthmother for neglect and placed in the care of his father and stepmother at the age of 6. He struggled within his new family and exhibited signs of an attachment disorder from the beginning.
Kids like these are not uncommon, and we now have an epidemic of children diagnosed with mental illnesses associated with insecure attachment: reactive attachment disorder (RAD), developmental trauma disorder (DTD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), etc. Desperate caregivers normally struggle to get help, as pediatricians and teachers associate the behaviors with poor parenting. Insurance generally doesn’t cover the therapies and treatments required to really help these kids heal, and many of them fall through the cracks, labeled as “bad kids” and tossed aside.
Kids who fail to form meaningful bonds with a caregiver can become aggressive, antisocial, anxious, and even violent. These kids might grow up to become potential sociopathic criminals like the three boys listed above. Some experts suspect Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer suffered from RAD as well. I raised a child with RAD and feared a similar future.
But childhood trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Early intervention is key to helping these kids heal and, if properly treated, they can go on to live normal lives and form healthy relationships. Proper treatment involves neurologically re-wiring their brains and building self-esteem. These kids truly think they deserve the abuse and neglect they received, and the right kind of therapy can help them learn otherwise. But we need to catch it early and start treating it immediately; and that is not currently happening in our society.
If you think childhood trauma doesn’t affect you, you are dead wrong. Kids with these mental illnesses are costing taxpayers millions of dollars for foster care services, they’re disrupting classrooms and interfering with instruction, they’re clogging our hospitals and prisons. And God-forbid, they could be your killer someday. All of this can be avoided if we can start designating some resources to treating childhood trauma as soon as abuse and neglect is identified.
We need better insurance coverage. We need better mental health services. We need trauma-informed schools. We need to stop treating the guardians of these kids as the enemy. This is not a parenting problem… it’s a mental health issue, and it is treatable in the majority of cases. But only if we can start early.
My son was lucky to have parents with the resources and determination to get the right help, and he was lucky that we started right away. But it took me over a decade to actually find the right treatment to help heal our family. My son is a survivor, and he’s now achieving things never thought possible. Let’s try to give all the kids who’ve suffered from childhood trauma a chance at a normal life… it will help us form a healthier and safer society.