Last week, we discussed how even subtle differences in wordings can introduce an unwelcome power difference between adults and children. This week, we will discuss the importance of approaching difficult situations as learning opportunities and how that is a hopeful way of looking at knowledge gaps.
Learning requires fierce curiosity, which is more or less the same as courage, because especially in relation to trauma-awareness, you really need to be brave and make yourself vulnerable to be able to courageously and wholeheartedly listen to people’s lived experience in an open, nonjudgmental way. Sitting with people’s tough stories and offering holding space may be something we were not raised to do, so it requires learning. This is also something we brought in for the article. Take a look at these two sentences:
Therefore, it is important that adults can recognise the needs and the pain of a child.
To understand what the other goes through, authentic curiosity is needed, the desire to (learn to) understand the other person’s life story without judgment.
In the first sentence, it is indicated that recognising the needs is important. We agreed on this; it is very important, indeed. Then again, recognising is not necessarily something that you are either capable or incapable of. Most things in life can be learned, if the learner-to-be is inherently motivated and sees the added value of what there is to learn. In the first sentence, however, you either can or cannot recognise it, and this can make someone feel like being in the ‘wrong’ category. It can easily be perceived as implying a judgment: ‘You should be able to do this or you fall short.’
This is why we worded it differently and added the ‘learn to’. Once you acknowledge that something is both important and can be learned, a person is no longer in one of two categories (being able or unable), but on a continuum of less or more advanced learning. This offers hope and kindness. By adding the ‘learn to’, you indicate a process, not a rigid state. It takes away judgment and offers compassion and confidence instead: ‘It’s okay; you’re okay! This is what this child needs and you can learn to provide that, if you are not yet able to offer it now!’ It prevents people from feeling the fear and shame of being a ‘loser’ or ‘not good enough’. Shame is one of the biggest blockers of growth and development. You cannot force someone to learn something; the pressure of performing, the fear of failure and stress of shame are in itself enough to prevent any meaningful learning. All you can do is create an atmosphere that is encouraging (even literally: instilling courage), inviting and engaging for someone to become a learner. For that to happen, someone usually needs to feel connected, to feel seen and heard and respected, all the more so if there is a lot of pain underneath that may be expressed as anger, stubbornness, or resistance, to name a few.
Describing important competencies as something that can be learned throughout life, both privately and in work settings or in society as a whole, is an expression of trust: ‘Go ahead! You can do it!’ If we can have those hard conversations about what children need and often still lack, and we add the trust that as an adult you can learn to offer it, we work on the prevention of (cultural and personal) intergenerationality of unhealthy practices. You are only able to really learn something, however, if you feel safe and secure (there’s that psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology again!) and if you know you are also allowed to fail. Without permission to fail or permission to ask for help, it would almost be foolish to enter a learning adventure. Why risk your life, your image, your social inclusion by trying to achieve something you are very unsure of succeeding in? Who would walk the tightrope while lacking both experience and a safety net? And also, you will usually only enter a conscious learning process when you are conscious of your incompetence. This, again, is why you need to feel secure and supported without judgment, because the stress of insecurity will lead us into a fight-or-flight-modus, that does not allow for effective learning processes, only for surviving.
Therefore, if learning turns out to be difficult, the question that deserves attention is: ‘What makes it difficult to create the connection, between the adult and the child, and also between the adult and their inner child?’ It is all about the big difference between ‘What is wrong with you?’ (judgment, no ‘holding space’, power position) and ‘What happened to you?’ (curiosity, connection compassion, courage, equity), between ‘What’s the problem?’ and ‘What’s the story?’
For us, wording in a way that respects all these underlying physiological and psychological processes is of crucial importance and we feel that as adults, we need to be aware that children do not carry responsibility for such dynamics. They model what their environment shows them. They experience toxic stress as a consequence of the interaction with their environment, that often also provides them with toxic language. The responsibility for all this thus lies with the adults around them, with the recognition that the more childhood trauma the adults suffer from, the harder deep reflection will be for them, and this, in turn, deserves compassion. The more security we experience, the more courage we will have to make ourselves vulnerable, because in a safe and secure environment, we do not have to be alert and on the lookout for danger all the time. Speaking about competencies in terms of learning processes that can be entered, instead of categorising people as ‘capable’ or ‘incapable’, makes everything kinder and will end up reducing the use of deterministic, toxic language. Once we are more aware of the possible pain in others, we can be more compassionate in our approach of any other human being and this contributes to a more caring and peaceful society.
So, let us return to the questions that sparked the editing rounds: What is the added value of ACE Aware NL? What is different in our approach? What is our core message?
Science has shown that we do not leave our childhood behind. For better or worse, it stays with us and colours the way we are in the world, the way we feel, think, and behave around others, and the way we respond to our young ones’ needs and nurture them, which will shape their own start in life. Eventually, a healthy and just society, with attention and compassion for others and the living environment starts with a secure childhood.
This means we are not only focusing on infants and children, but also extensively on supporting adults in healing their own ACEs, in turn making them more sensitive and responsive towards children and preventing further ACEs from being created.
We hope that the article and these two blogs have shown that we aim to create a space of awareness around ACEs within the Netherlands, an awareness that needs and deserves strong reinforcement both at the personal and at the policy level, such as families, communities, child-related healthcare and national institutions.
These were the discussions we had with the Vakblad Vroeg-editors and it was heartwarming to experience that if we all stay in that state of curiosity (‘What do you mean with this?’, ‘What is the reason you edited that in/out?’, ‘How can we stay within the word limit for two pages and make this text as powerful and accessible as possible?’), a lot can be achieved!
We hope the article serves you in your work and we also hope to meet you in the near future for an ACE Aware NL-meeting or film screening. We want to thank Jan especially and Louise for their patience and their open mindedness and we look forward to working together again shortly!