Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 2

Last week, we discussed several basic aspects of human coexistence and children’s need to feel secure and integrated within their communities. From there, we work further towards the concept of Adult Supremacy (AS). Today, we pose the question of how the interaction between social factors and biological mechanisms influences health and wellbeing.

The biosocial inheritance

Last week, we looked at how historical aspects are partly responsible for building the local character. In that, we deal with properties of the natural and the social environment, but of course, there is much more involved. Every country has a history; there were wars, natural disasters, revolutions, technological innovations, infrastructural developments, changes in societal views, and much more. This whole interplay is both caused by and consequential for a country’s politics and economy. It also influences how relationships and the social environment take shape. And, in relation to our Adult Supremacy-theme, even more important: all these aspects have power facets, that can be explicit or implicit, and that result in less or more dependency on the decisions of others.
Who is in charge at the global stage? Who determines which societal needs the government will support to satisfy, policy-wise and financially? Who decides what is important, when and for whom? And at the micro level: what do those adult decisions mean for the daily life and health of babies, infants and children? How do those social aspects impact their biology?

A visual representation of the Framework of Biosocial Inheritance; the dark blue social factors are in the original model, the light blue ones could be seen as additional factors influencing the Biosocial Inheritance.

Anthropologists Hoke and McDade summarised the result of all these interactions in the term ‘Biosocial Inheritance’.  This means that the ‘inheritance’ we receive from our parents and grandparents and from the society in which we grow up, is built by both biological and social aspects, that mutually influence one another intensively. Through this mechanism, social and health disparities are transmitted and often reinforced. This process, by the way, does not start after birth, but already begins in the womb, as the research by Tessa Roseboom showed. She studied the influence of the Dutch Hunger Winter in the Second World War for several health issues in the next generation. The famine and stress of the war turned out to have an influence on the health of the children who were conceived and born in that period. (Here, you see Tessa Roseboom together with Minister of Health, Hugo de Jonge, in an interview in 2019; the minister says that we only have one chance to get it right for a healthy start!)
From the physiological perspective, the coherence between the social and the biological is logical: if there is a lot of threat, if you feel lonely, or if you live in famine (social factors), your psychological and emotional perceptions change, leading to the activation of your stress system and an adaptation in your metabolism (biological mechanisms). This influences what the organism learns from each situation for the future (the interaction). Of course, we do indeed have to learn from such situations, because if we do not, our survival in the short term is at risk. The question is, however: what price do we pay in the long term for the negative consequences of that interaction?

Social construction, attachment and authenticity

If we know that the influence of cultural habits, traditions, and human interaction is so big, shouldn’t we give more attention to the way we communicate with and treat babies and young children? If, in study after study,  that early period turns out to be the main explanation for how a child approaches the world as an adult and how health develops, should we not consider change to be urgent? The high burden of disease that results from it at a societal level surely speaks for doing so. These issues may seem obvious, but they are not that easy to solve. They imply a quest in which the role of adults is a significant factor. Of course, that role, in and of itself, again also carries its own biosocial inheritance.
Babies and infants are dependent on the care of the adults around them. They have a deep need to attach to those adults and simultaneously an intense urge to be and show themselves. They have little to no opportunity to leave a deficient environment and find a new one, an environment that does more justice to their personality and in which the young human is actually being seen, heard and valued for their unique individuality. Often, the consequence is that if the need for personal expression comes at the expense of attachment, attachment is favoured: after all, without the adults, the child cannot survive. Thus, authenticity is being suppressed and the child becomes alienated from themselves: the basis for trauma. In this video, trauma specialist Gabor Maté further explains this principle.

The tension between attachment and authenticity is something that deserves attention, seeing there are many cultural practices of which we know that they disturb or negatively influence a healthy development or powerful authenticity, practices that therefore deserve or even require a critical  reexamination. That is not easy, and usually pretty confronting, because what we find will often be about habits that are deeply ingrained in our culture. We view them as so normal that it is hard to consider the thought that they might be harmful, that they constitute social conventions with a negative impact on the biology of our youngest. Take for instance the so-called ‘survivorship bias’, the argument of ‘yes, these bad events happened to me, but I turned out alright, didn’t I, so it isn’t all that bad if my child gets its butt kicked!’ If we closely investigate such patterns, it often actually means that we have to revise the status quo, reconsider the power positions. Think, for example, of discrimination and segregation of certain population groups, but also of corporal punishment (spanking, a ‘loving slap’), of not respecting a child’s physical integrity, of divorces with a lot of quarrels and alienation. Furthermore, you can think of institutionalised forms of policy in which stress for the child is lurking or certain: very  early childcare away from the parents, birthing practices in which mother and baby are not kept together, circumcision without a medical indication, parenting methods in which blackmail, humiliation, isolation and adult supremacy are utilised or encouraged (‘if you will not do [x], then you will not be allowed to [y]’, ‘you are such a disappointment, ‘go to your room, I don’t wanna see you for a while’, ‘teach your child who is the boss’).


Today’s conclusion can be that health and wellbeing are influenced by biosocial inheritance, the very complex and historically formed interaction of social factors and biological mechanisms. In all that, power relations play an important role. Children, due to their dependence, cannot escape the choices of adults and will regularly have to sacrifice part of their authenticity to maintain their attachment relationships, with all due consequences

Next week, we will look at the influence of different forms of stress on development and power relations will be featured more prominently.

Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 1

Last week in our blog, we mentioned the concept of ‘Adult Supremacy’ (AS), the dominance of (the interests of) adults. Seeing that this theme is so closely related to everything that ACE-awareness is about, we would like to elaborate on this in more detail, based on earlier articles Marianne has written on the topic. Our guiding question will be whether we will be able to let ourselves be taken by the hand of a baby’s basic, primal needs and whether we can design our societies in such a way that we can accommodate caregivers to attend to these needs more easily than is currently the case. What can we do to, in the words of developmental psychologist Darcia Narvaez, stick with the ‘evolved developmental niche’, in which a nurturing environment leads to species-typical outcomes in health and wellbeing? Today’s blog is the first part in a series and discusses a number of basic aspects of human coexistence.


Human babies are very immature when they come into the world. Their developmental stage at birth means they are totally dependent on others. The quality of the care they are surrounded with, influences how their physical, social, cognitive and emotional systems will mature. This immaturity also means that children have many needs. Every parent can relate to that: the infant’s need to be cared for is immense!
Despite all this initial immaturity, all over the world children generally become competent members of their social communities: they go through the process of socialisation. They master the local language both verbally and bodily, they know what is expected of them and they rapidly notice what is ‘appropriate’ and what is not. Every environment has its own demands and is distinctive in what it has to offer. In a hostile and harsh living environment, children will have to learn different skills than in a plentiful or kind setting. Try to imagine what this has been like for millennia: a child growing up on a savannah, where most of the time water and vegetation are scarce and prey animals always lurk, has to develop a different behavioural repertoire than a child growing up in a subtropical setting with a lot of rain and crops and fruits, or than a child in the Arctic, focussed on protection from the cold and the catching of fish. The differences between industrialised societies may be less big, but even there, children have to deal with specific societal characteristics that influence daily life and social interaction. One rather powerful example is the continuously changing trends in socialising for children – where today we observe more time spent on gadgets (smartphones, tablets) and less time spent on the playground than we could ever imagine even 20 years ago, let alone 100.
One way or another, we all have to adapt to our living environment to survive.

The cover of the dvd ‘Babies’, on the first year of life of four babies in four different locations around the world (Namibia, Japan, Mongolia and the United States)

Universal environmental influences?

During much of human history, societies strongly depended on what the living environment had to offer – such influences do not disappear easily. The way in which a society takes shape and the habits, traditions, and rituals that come with it, will to some extent be related to those influences. To illustrate this, the fact that the Netherlands are known for their ‘polder culture’ has its roots in such an environmental aspect. In a country where water level and water force are a constant threat, not only for your home base, but also for your harvest and your trading activities, you will have to, whether you like it or not, cooperate to keep your feet dry. The much-discussed and often considered infamous ‘poldering’ in politics and all kinds of work settings thus has a cultural-materialist caliber: the natural environment has a centuries-old influence on the local character. In this case that amounts to: you need to have constructive relations with the one who manages the canals, whom you may not know and who may be far away, in order to achieve the water level in the ditch along your farmland. That is something very different from maintaining a good relationship with your mother’s cousin who controls the water well in your village.
How a culture develops, may not be fully determined by the environment and its natural and man-made resources, but it is partly, and most of the time this has old, historical origins. Within anthropology, this social construction is a core theme that we have often heard being addressed in more or less this way: ‘How people behave, is not fixed, but is established by social and cultural influences. These determine how everyone in the group deals with a situation. We cannot make any universally valid statements on that, because it is different everywhere.’ Is this indeed true? Can we not discover similarities in the effects of certain circumstances? Are there no universal features and behavioural patterns that connect people with one another? Probably there are, because if there were not, then why would we find discrimination so objectionable? Is that not exactly because we have so much in common and are equal in that, despite all the external, apparent differences? Let us take a look at that as well from an evolutionary perspective, at all that connects us.

Much of the social conventions we abide by, is not visible and often not even conscious. We will dive into this aspect of biopsychosocial influences on health and wellbeing in a next episode.

‘Wired for connection’

Within the possibilities and limitations of the living environment, children learn the skills to survive in their own life world and to make the best of what it has to offer. Connection to others is crucial in those efforts, because of the aforementioned dependence. Fortunately, children are inclined by nature to seek connection to others; they are ‘wired for connection’, neurologically built to make and expect contact with others. Additionally, children are innately ‘prosocial’: with their large eyes, chubby cheeks and upturned nose, they try to seduce adults to care, share, help and support, and from the very beginning, they themselves also seek opportunities to maintain good social relationships by caring, sharing, helping and supporting. The idea that children are egotistic, is really a myth that desperately needs to be discarded.
Prosociality is a concept that is often seen as a proactive form of socially competent behaviour: we not only try to avoid letting things get messed up and avoid obstructing mutual relations, but we actively try to influence things in a positive way. That tendency for empathy and cooperation is innate, but like other skills, needs a responsive environment to flourish. The foundation of prosociality is a deeply ingrained expectation pattern, an existential need to be part of a community, to be seen and heard and valued, because without all that, survival is hardly possible. Social isolation is, for a social animal like the human, one of the worst things that could possibly happen.

A still from the dvd ‘Babies’, with a young sibbling taking care of a baby and thus being granted responsibilities that require empathy and attentiveness


Today’s conclusion can be that children are very dependent at birth. Very soon, however, they become socialised in their own life world and they learn to deal with its possibilities and limitations. The proficiency they show in doing so, comes from their innate capacity to initiate relationships with others in their social environment: they are prosocial and ‘wired for connection’ and they want to be a respected member of their ‘tribe’.
Next week, we will look at the biosocial inheritance, the impact of the social environment on our biology.

From Childhood to Life Happiness!

Have you ever wondered why you remember some childhood memories vividly, and others not? Do you ponder about how you grew up into the person you are today? Does it happen to you that you seriously doubt your ability to get something done, despite your qualities and proof to the contrary? Do you ever get annoyed about how annoyed you can get? Are you sometimes struck by a sense of loneliness that seems to come out of nowhere? Do you often engage in negative self-talk?

These are among the types of questions that we, as ACE Aware NL, would like to see addressed more, both in science and society at large, because the processes linked to these questions often may turn out to have a link to childhood experiences. The way you experience the world as a child, the way you are treated, and the relationships you build with those closest to you, are a strong driver for how your worldviews and your behaviours manifest themselves. In several scientific disciplines, a large number of studies have tried to find out how these developmental processes work.

It so happens, however, that much of the literature and population-based research targeted at advancing our understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is based on rather dry and numerical research. Questions such as ‘how present are they actually in the general population’, ‘how much do they impact the functioning of adults in the present’ and ‘what are the key insights that we can use to prevent them from happening’, are currently answered largely through quantitative-based surveys and scales. To illustrate, researchers have been correlating scores on an internationally accepted ACE scale or quiz (person X matches the criteria for N number of ACEs) with (longitudinal) measurements or observations for disorders, diseases or risk behavior at a later stage in adulthood.

We feel that this way of studying the importance of early life for human development in general, and ACEs in particular, is missing some more in-depth, personal, narrative insights. We feel that human life trajectories are too colourful, too multi-faceted and too unique to be summarized by checkboxes, pre-defined categories and descriptions researchers come up with, however applicable they may seem here and there. What we would love to learn about, is how you, yourself, would describe the link between your early years and your current self. We therefore invite you to make yourself a soothing drink, sit down at ease in a place where you feel comfy, and take a trip down the memory lane. What was your childhood like for you? How safe and secure did you feel? What barriers did it throw on your path? Who made a difference for you in overcoming the most difficult circumstances? Who was that one person that truly saw you for who you are?

Qualitative methods such as open-ended questionnaires, in-depth interviews and thematic conversations have a history of making these deeper layers more visible. As such, today we join international colleagues who encourage the inclusion of qualitative insights and the use of multiple methods to research this topic, by putting forward an online questionnaire entitled ‘From Childhood to Life Happiness’. The questionnaire is written in both Dutch and English and is meant for both lay persons and professionals. It includes both direct closed questions and exploratory open questions. We think it is short enough not to demand too much of your time, and thorough enough to give you the much needed space to provide a nuanced view of your personal experiences. We emphasise that the questionnaire is fully anonymous and hope that this will support you in writing openly about what was important then for your life now. The aim is to get the questionnaire circulating at a national level in the Netherlands, so that the results will be an honest reflection of as many different people and their insights into the link between their childhood and adulthood.

We look forward to your responses that will make a valuable contribution by giving a more personal insight and unexplored context to the scientific knowledge of how important our early years and our loving relationships truly are. Thank you very much in advance for your honest musings and your trust in our efforts to use them for the benefit of people’s journey ‘from childhood to life happiness’!

Trauma-Informed Classrooms: Why They Are Important and How You Can Become a Trauma-Informed Educator, Part 3

From the trauma-informed educator, to the trauma-informed education setting to creating trauma-informed communities

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” – Frederick Douglass

As trauma-informed educators, our task is not to fix broken children. Also, children who are experiencing or experienced toxic stress or trauma are not broken. No one who has experienced trauma or many ACEs is damaged beyond repair, and that is especially true at a young age, when neural plasticity is still very high. Our task as teachers is not to be a psychologist, and we don’t have to conduct therapy sessions and see our students as patients. Our task is to build a nurturing environment for our students to grow up in, foster their psychological resilience and empower them. By doing this, we are contributing to ‘building strong children’.

As Bruce Perry’s research has shown, even if a child had to endure poor early experiences, future experiences can have buffering characteristics and thus a positively stimulating effect on their neurodevelopment. Positive experiences and trauma-informed interventions from family, schools or communities, can help to optimize the child’s development, and can even have a preventive role in a child’s brain development.

This practically means that while each and every educator can work on becoming more trauma-informed, the school or other educational settings and the community as a whole also have an important role to play. This is shown in the model below, called the “HEARTS model” (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools) by the University of California San Francisco. Similar models of trauma-informed, ACE-informed, or mental-health informed communities have been proposed and are easy to find in governmental websites from the US, Canada, the UK, or Australia.

As Waite and Ryan discuss, ‘…it would be helpful to incorporate integrative multi-level, transdisciplinary systems and professionals given that inequities in education and exposure to ACEs have their origins in the structure of society and manifest the disparate life opportunities.’ Since children frequently spend most of their time at school and at home, policies that promote trauma-informed practices on both spaces are more important than ever.

School settings can become places that promote:

  • resilience and inclusion for all students (those that experience stress and trauma and those who do not);
  • cooperation between the school staff members, to help them process their own traumas;
  • continuing education for all staff members.

It is important to find allies within the school setting that can support the work of their colleagues and promote this culture of being trauma-informed. A whole school approach is necessary.

Linking it back to last week’s story and wrapping it all up. How do we move on from here?
Going back to my story from last week and looking at it through a trauma-informed lens, I can think of a million questions and answers my student and I could have engaged in and I have replayed this moment in my head many times throughout the years. I reflected on the strategies that deserve a more prominent place in how we are educated as teachers. I have come to realize that if I had approached this from a trauma-informed perspective, I would have facilitated *connection before correction* with the student – first build a relationship before acting in a correcting way. Moreover, there was actually no need for me to know his background story. Educators who use trauma-informed practices routinely assume that many or most of their students may have been experiencing toxic stress, trauma, or be trauma survivors and they modify their teaching, approach, and discipline to be empathetic, inclusive and humane. I also might have paid closer attention to my own triggers and impulses; I might have reflected on my personal experiences in the classroom and the teachers I came across as a young student. I might also have used calming strategies like meditation, journaling exercises, and other tools that help lower stress levels, or maybe even therapy.

Depending on where you start your journey as an educator and the specific population you work with, you will walk a path that may differ slightly or substantially from the path of your colleagues. Below, you will find lots of different resources that can help you reflect on your role. Some of these resources can be used as food for thought for whole school establishments, so feel free to share with everyone that you feel may find these resources useful!

List of Resources for Educators
(The following list contains links from all three blog posts on Trauma-Informed Education)

The Original ACE Study:

  • Felitti V.J. et al., 1998. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Am J Prev Med. May;14(4):245-58. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9635069/






  • The Brain Architecture Game. A great resource for educators and people working with children ages 1-5. This game shows you how positive, tolerable and toxic stress experiences affect your brain’s development. You can download a DIY guide to play the game or order it here: https://dev.thebrainarchitecturegame.com/
  • The Resilience Interactive Game. Choose positive experiences to help children become more resilient in the face of adversity. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resilience-game/
  • Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the brain to help you understand how thoughts and emotions interact. This has been used by many teachers in the classroom to explain to children how their brain works and how to get regulated again, engaging the “logical”brain. https://youtu.be/f-m2YcdMdFw

Useful Websites:

Trauma-Informed Classrooms: Why They Are Important and How You Can Become a Trauma-Informed Educator, Part 2

Last week we focused on the importance of a trauma-informed education that takes into account the different stress triggers, toxic stress sources, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and traumatic events. This week we will focus on how the brain and the nervous system respond to different triggers and on what a trauma-informed educational setting and educator look like. Throughout this blog post, you will find a number of resources that will allow you to continue educating yourself on this important topic.

The science of healthy brain development
The brain is an interrelated organ: chemicals in the brain and our emotions are mutually constitutive. Our state of mind, our receptiveness to learning, our ability to regulate our behaviours, and more are controlled by them. Everytime the brain perceives a situation as threatening or unpredictable, it releases stress hormones. Not all stress is toxic; some stress is positive (like the stress you experience while planning a vacation), some stress is tolerable (like the impact a serious illness might have) and some stress is toxic (like the repeated exposure to adversity with the lack of support from an adult that helps the child to co-regulate and process emotions).

(Image source is here.)

The brains of children that experience toxic stress such as early childhood trauma or ACEs, develop differently with regard to neurophysiology; things that appear normal or even positive for most children, can appear threatening for them. These children can miss or misinterpret important social cues coming from their peers or teachers. They might feel overwhelmed because their brain is constantly on the lookout for cues that a situation may be threatening. This can lead to two different reactions: they can become hyper aroused and aggressive (as they go into the fight or flight state, or they can appear compliant, numb and maybe even dreamy (as they go into the freeze state). This video shows you  how a child experiencing toxic stress unconsciously interprets the social cues around them as scary or threatening.

According to Peter Levine, trauma specialist, children who are experiencing toxic stress and trauma, could show hyperarousal, muscle tension and fatigue, sleep problems, tummy aches and headaches or back pain. They might exhibit ADHD-like symptoms, hyperarousal, ‘restless leg’, agitation, lack of motivation, failure to complete work, fidgeting, darting eyes, ‘head in the clouds’, blank stare, and more. They could be visiting the school nurse more often or be absent more often.

And according to Bessel van der Kolk, another trauma specialist: ‘Despite the well-documented effects of anger, fear, and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programs continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking. The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement. When children are oppositional, defensive, numbed out, or enraged, it’s also important to recognize that such “bad behavior” may repeat action patterns that were established to survive serious threats, even if they are intensely upsetting or off-putting.’

What areas does the trauma-informed education system focus on?
In order to understand how the trauma-informed model works, you have to start from the base (what happens inside the brain) and move up to the cultural and humanistic ripple effects of this approach. At its core, such an approach is filled with empathy and making education more accessible to those students that have difficulties adapting to the current educational system. How can you go about this?

Work towards understanding the different aspects of trauma!
Trauma can have many effects:

  • neurobiological (finding it difficult to respond to stressful, unpredictable situations and new people);
  • physical (being sick more often, being overweight or obese, dealing with mental health problems);
  • social (not being able to build and maintain friendships, for example because of being marginalised due to your ethnic background or social class or to not having access to healthcare or good nutrition);
  • psychological (developing or dealing with stress disorders, depression and more).

Work towards changing the way questions are posed!
Instead of asking: “What’s wrong?”, you can ask: “What happened?”
Many trauma-informed practitioners and experts ask “What has happened to you?” instead of “What is wrong with you?” The first invites someone to tell a story, a life narrative with personal meaning-making nuances, where the latter is much more judging, more accusatory in its character. This last approach will, once again, only add to the already existing trauma. In a classroom setting, asking “What did you do?” has a judgmental overtone; it causes feelings of insecurity, stress and guilt in the students. Asking “Would you like to share with the group, what you two are talking about?”, like in the story I shared last week, implies blaming and shaming. Understanding this mechanism makes it more easily understandable that my student lashed out at me; all humans will try to avoid situations that are threatening and might cause them shame or trouble.

Work towards checking any assumptions, preconceived notions, or stereotypes you yourself might have!
Decolonizing the mind changes lives (), and can help to disrupt ‘the culture of fear and failure’, as Liz Dozier calls it in this video.

Photo by Megan Soule on Unsplash

Work towards using strategies to cultivate more empathy!
Humans are born with the capacity for empathy (to consider what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes) and this capacity can be increased by engaging in actions of empathy. A classroom that is built on empathy helps students understand each other and build friendships based on trust. Practicing empathy can also help you, the educator, to have more empathy towards yourself, learn about your stress triggers and come up with strategies to help you self-soothe when you are the one who needs to take a deep breath.

Work towards viewing humanity as the center of any action or strategy you employ in the classroom!
Being trauma-informed means that we can see fear and stress as a shared human experience. From that perspective, trauma (which is essentially fear that one cannot turn off) can be better understood. Many trauma-informed practices focus on how to soothe the nervous system and through this lens, discipline in the classroom can be achieved by helping the students co-regulate with the group, instead of singling them out for … being human, human in their vulnerability or in their experience of pain and disconnection from the self.

Work on building resilience with your students!
Stress is sometimes inevitable and trauma is a possibility in any one of your students’ lives. Resilient people have skills that allow them to deal with common or more rare stressors or to overcome trauma. Sometimes they can even thrive despite the toxic stress or trauma in their lives. You are already fostering some of these resilience-building skills such as problem-solving, planning, seeking help and support from others, and maintaining focus. You could help your students still more by helping them develop a sense of control in their lives, even if it is secondary control (you cannot control what happens in your life, but you can control how you react to it). You could also share with them stories of people who faced trauma or adversity and how they overcame it to foster positivity, teach them age-appropriate mindfulness techniques to teach them self-soothing skills, and encourage journaling or art as a means of lowering stress and taking control of their personal narrative and their story.

Next week, we will look at trauma-informed education from the  perspective of the school setting and the wider community. We have included lots of resources throughout Part 1 and Part 2 which we will collect in next week’s blog (Part 3). Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas on trauma-informed education on our social media accounts and to share our blog posts with your colleagues or anyone else interested!