ave more behavioural and academic problems
self-preservation mode, it doesn’t
develop well in other areas, such
as language and social-emotional
skills,” Chartier explains, “so
children who’ve experienced ACEs
tend to have more behavioural and
ACEs can affect a child’s
“levelness.” Levelness is what makes
a table usable and functional, just
like a child’s mental health makes
her able to function in society. Some
children’s brains develop on level
floors, meaning they’d had healthy,
supportive relationships, and good
nutrition and health care. For other
children, their brains develop on
more sloped floors, meaning they’ve
been exposed to abuse and violence,
have had unreliable or unsupportive
relationships, and lacked access to
key programs and resources. Like
a table, a child can’t make herself
level— they need help. As well, the
field of epigenetics indicates that
genetic makeup and environment
work together in determining how
an individual develops. Contrary to
what many think, our genes are not
set in stone. “Some kids seem to be
very resilient to ACEs, so something
in their genetic makeup seems to be
a protective factor,” says Chartier.
But communities that foster a
child’s levelness—through healthy
environments and parent supports—
also contribute to resilience.
“I think that one of the coresymptoms of early life trauma is aproblem with the sense of self,” saysRuth Lanius, professor of psychiatryat Western University in London,Ontario. One of the problems is theACEs can result in a fragmented senseof self or intense self-hatred. Eitherway, it creates a barrier to emotionalhealing, and even to seeking medicalhelp for physical ailments, becausethe individual feels unworthy oftreatment or therapy, Lanius explains.
Returning to levelness oftenrequires attention from mental healthprofessionals.
Lanius encourages a stagedtreatment approach to helpindividuals develop self-identity. Instage one, individuals learn how tofeel safe, in control and trust others.
In the second stage, they processdramatic memories and grieve lossesrelated to their ACEs. In the finalstage, they reconnect with the world,
people, their jobs… with the goal ofbuilding new lives for themselves.
Gereen Anderson was able to rebuildher life, but it took time.
At the age of 20, when her motherdied, she felt lost without the womanwho had essentially been her life.She entered into an emotionallyunstable 12-year relationship witha woman much like her mother.But she also started what she calls“a spiritual journey to find myplace.” She attributes where she isthe Correctional Services programat MacEwan University, and nowworking with offenders—to aseries of healthy relationships thateventually led her to life skillscoaching. She acknowledges that herjourney isn’t over. “You’re alwaysprocessing your past,” she says.
Processing the past is somethingsisters Virginia and Rusti Lehay alsoused to overcome the effects of theirACEs.
Both were sexually abused throughchildhood and adolescence, bymale relatives, and Virginia also