For this week’s blog, we would like to have a first ‘dive’ into the initial responses to our ACE Aware NL questionnaire ‘From Childhood to Life Happiness’, that we introduced in this blog and that can be found at any time here. With this occasion, we would also like to reach out to those of you who didn’t have the chance to see it yet, because we think it offers both a very good opportunity to reflect for any of us, as well as a valuable source of interesting data for research around ACEs.
With an average age of 45, our respondents are both from within the Netherlands, and outside, both raised here, and not, and both settled in the region for generations, as well as second generation Dutch citizens or expatriates. In other words, we are in for a treat – a properly mixed participant pool.
Is that so? One interesting detail is that so far in our small sample, 100% of our respondents are women. What might that tell us? Is our audience mostly female, or the ACE-science in general reaching more women? Are women more willing to talk about personal issues? Are the men in today’s society (at least in the Netherlands) taught to play ‘tough’ and avoid disclosing emotional stories that are sometimes deeply rooted in childhood? Or is it just a coincidence, so far? We don’t know yet, and we will have to see along the way as the responses come in, but we find it an interesting element to ponder upon nevertheless.
As we dive in a bit deeper, things start to get…well…messy. A first glance at how people remember their childhoods gives a strikingly troublesome image: neglect, abuse, bullying, loneliness, complicated family relationships, loss of a dear one, problematic sexual experiences, lack of safety, lack of emotional support… and the list goes on. It’s almost like reading a presentation on ACEs, or a description in a trauma-informed manual. Except, these are not book descriptions – they are real life stories that we read first hand. Immediately, the question comes to mind – is this a skewed representation, meaning that people who are interested in our material tend to be more involved in or oriented towards this topic and implicitly tend to have lived more troublesome childhoods? We are aware that painful experiences may be why our respondents participated in the questionnaire in the first place, so that their stories may be heard at last. Or, is this a hint indicating, as others have pointed out, that unhappy, traumatic childhoods are much more common than we dare or can bear to imagine? Again, we don’t know, and we will have to keep analysing more data as more people start to fill out the form and share their narratives with us. This first impression, however, once more feeds our curiosity for the topic; it also strengthens our compassion for all those among us who, often invisibly, carry with them the scars from their early days. What should be a carefree life stage, a happy past nourishing a fruitful future, is clearly still a triggering and often unsettling present for many.
And then, what are the threads, the moments, the experiences that leave the strongest marks, and stick in our memories and bodies forever? What are the defining characteristics of childhood that are formative for the development of a person? What do people point out first, when ‘caught off guard’ and opening up in their vulnerability? Well…it depends. Sometimes, it is a one time event, like the birth of a sibling, the death of a parent, or an illness in the family. Other times, it is a transitional period, like learning how to breastfeed, figuring out how to deal with strong feelings and life challenges, or even the time spent in the mother’s womb. Sometimes these events also play a role in making the perception of our childhoods good or bad, joyful or traumatic, a pleasant dream or a nightmare. Often, a common narrative seems to be, perhaps not surprising at all, the emotional environment in which the child grows up, the quality of parent-child attachment: a toxic relationship, a perceived lack of love, persistent bullying at school without any buffer at home, or, moving to the other side of the spectrum, making a parent enjoy your milestones, feeling emotionally understood and listened to, a good ‘life energy’ being instilled from the start. Whatever the case may be, one thing becomes clear – life stories cannot and should not be considered a mere collection of consecutive events to be treated as numbers in a statistical pool – they are much more than that. It matters how people feel all the way through their life journey, starting in early childhood. These are biopsychosocial processes doing their neurophysiological work: they have the worrying potential to build a road from a lack of feeling safe and secure in childhood to a difficult life in adulthood.
Next week, we are going to address exactly that, the link between childhood and adult life, between the past and the present. These links only come to light because of your insights and stories, that we appreciate deeply. Therefore, until then, if and whenever you see fit, feel free to have a look at our ‘From Childhood to Life Happiness’ survey and know that we welcome you to fill it out. Thank you in advance for doing so or for sharing the link with others who may be interested!