Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 5

Last week, we discussed how the child’s interest is often not given the same weight as the adult interest and how that influences the child’s status quo and various forms of policy, which, in turn, influence the child’s life. For the time being, this situation continues despite the knowledge we have regarding the impact of childhood on adult health and wellbeing. We also addressed the fact that it may seem as if Adult Supremacy (AS) as a concept is more or less meant to label adults as ‘guilty’ for everything that troubles the child. This week, we will say a bit more about this aspect.

Consciously or unconsciously?

The statement that adults often fall short in satisfying the child’s needs deserves a closer look, as there is much more to this than mere unwillingness or ignorance.

The term ‘consciously or unconsciously’ is a well-considered aspect in the definition of AS and received a place in it after a brainstorm with Robin Grille, an author and professional with an impressively holistic vision, who, time and again, emphasises that we should not overlook obstacles on the multigenerational path. It is important to explicitly acknowledge that adults do not generally consciously ignore the child’s interest. They usually do not simply run over and flatten what is crucial to the child. Mostly and unfortunately, due to a host of factors, they are just not trained or able to consciously recognise or serve the child’s interest. Mentioning those limitations prevents an atmosphere in which empathy and compassion for the parent are lacking, in which the parent is considered a ‘perpetrator’, the one who is to blame for all that goes wrong in the child’s life. It is clearly not that straightforward. Many adults were harmed themselves in their childhood and the pain of the past hinders a clear view of needs and problems in the present, often both their own and their child’s. The tragedy of ACEs and AS is exactly that intergenerational aspect: adults who, as children, were confronted with many ACEs, who grew up in an environment where their interests were not sufficiently paid attention to, run a bigger risk of exposing their own children to such situations. What caused them so much misery in their early days, they often partially hand down. This means that there is a long and sad, intergenerational chain of causes and consequences, which is something very different from a long chain of guilty ones. Such a process is hard to break. In what way might we be able to work on that?

Tough questions on responsibility

That we view the behaviour of parents and other adults with the necessary meekness, does obviously not mean that it does not have to be up for discussion. It does not mean that, to the benefit of our children or the children for whom we care or draw up policies, we do not have to reflect on the influence of the choices, cultural practices, and social traditions that our society and we as adults continue to support. After all, an important part of being an adult is to take responsibility for your behaviour and its consequences. Many choices that we make as parents, however, are made under the pressure of sociocultural conventions. The whole idea of AS, therefore, is not to touch on what might simply seem to be a family issue, but to lift the taboo and discuss what is a multifaceted, societal issue. With all the knowledge available, it is about time to take responsibility for that as a community. That can be quite a confrontation, especially in the personal sphere:

‘Does my child not listen to me because I do not listen to her?’,

‘Is my child bullying classmates because it does not feel safe here at home?’,

‘Is my child so reticent because I am always in a hurry and do not take time to get the conversation going in an easy manner?’,

‘Does my baby want to nurse with me all night because I am not available during the day?’,

‘Does my child not lay problems before me because I instantly look for a solution instead of first listening to them, with empathy and compassion and without judgment?’

Institutionalised issues

Aside from personal ones, there are of course also many institutionalised practices that can lead to difficult questions and possibly uncomfortable answers.

– If we know how important skin-to-skin contact is for the newborn, then how come that on NICUs and similar hospital departments there is not much more often continuously one parent present for the prematurely born baby?

– If we know how important breastfeeding and mother’s milk are for the infant’s immunological, neurological, emotional and motor development, then how come that maternity leave is not much more generous?
– If we know that children’s perception of security and safety is so important for their stress regulation and thus for the prevention of toxic stress, then how come that certain forms of cosleeping by parents and children are often so actively (and sometimes almost aggressively) discouraged in youth healthcare?

– If we know how drastic and disruptive it is for children when their parents separate, causing the children to lose the undivided unity of the family, then how come that many regulations have rather made divorce easier instead of more effectively dealing with, facilitating and financing problem solution and support, so that everyone can heal and grow?

This list can easily be extended with other matters that deserve more social indignation. Think of anonymous sperm donation, circumcision without medical indication, behavioristic parenting strategies, oppressive school systems, problematic youth healthcare cases, and poignant child poverty. In all of this, next to the general health of the adult who takes care of the child, socioeconomic, societal and political tendencies play a role. Infants have a need for security and physical proximity of loved ones; at an existential level, children want to be seen and loved for who they are. By now, there is a lot of research showing how important all of this is for psychic, neurological and hormonal health; nevertheless, much of it still remains underexposed in institutions and systems. That those needs can often not be easily expressed in economical concepts, probably plays a role that delays implementation in policies. Love and emotional security cannot be calculated for the GDP and thus parents and children often have to muddle through with one another and make the best of it, despite difficult circumstances, with all due consequences.


The child’s interest is often inferior to adult interests and in many cases, this is partly the effect of insufficient knowledge and insight and insufficient sociocultural options to give the needs of children the attention they deserve. This requires reflection from adults on uncomfortable questions and answers to find starting points for where societal change is needed.

Next week, we will dig more deeply into social change and the link with physiology.

Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 6 (final)

Last week, we discussed how it can be very difficult for parents to meet the needs of their children, especially when they have to deal with all kinds of influences from the social environment and are supposed to go along with different sociocultural practices and meet specific expectation patterns. Keeping a closer eye on the child’s interests and attuning to them requires a process of self-reflection that can be very confronting for adults. What makes it so difficult to connect with the child and its needs?


From a biological perspective, humans fall within the class of mammals. There is a distinction between cache mammals, nest mammals, follow mammals, and carry mammals. All these species have different ways to take care of their young and have different fat percentages for their milk. This, of course, is what connects all of them: the fact that they feed their young with milk from the milk glands of the mother. Humans, like all other primates, belong to the carry mammals. Their milk has a limited amount of fat and the mother, therefore, has to feed her baby at short intervals. That is why she carries her offspring, so that it has access to the breast and can nurse time and again. Of all primates, human babies are the least mature at birth, so that for a long period of time, they are dependent on the care of their mothers and other adults. Without that proximity, they are more or less sentenced to death: anytime, a sabre tooth tiger can appear around the corner and eat them. For this reason, human babies have evolved in such a way that all of their behaviours are aimed at keeping the caregiving adult close. If babies succeed in doing so, they will feel safe. If they don’t, there is a constant sense of threat and danger, resulting in a physiological state that becomes stressed and prepares for fight, flight or freeze. In that mode, large amounts of stress hormones flow through the body, all meant to make sure that the organism can bring itself back to safety. Other physical functions are subordinate to that effort, such as learning processes, analytical thinking, planning, creativity, play and empathy. The body suffers from that high stress, but if all goes well, it will only last for a short time and will then be functional: the stress helps to escape the danger.

A still from the documentary ‘Resilience’, representing the survival mode of child experiencing toxic stress

When the stress is permanent, however, and the individual does not succeed in regaining calm and a safe haven, the stress starts to harm the brain, as well as other organs, and so the stress regulation system is disrupted. Chances for disease and problems later in life then increase. The stress is stored in the body’s memory and will refuse to simply fade away once the event is over. The risk becomes that the person remains dysregulated or at least develops a vulnerability for dysregulation. This is a serious issue, because, as psychiatrist and trauma expert Bruce Perry says: ‘An emotionally dysregulated adult cannot regulate an emotionally dysregulated child.’ When they are both in survival mode, it is hard for both of them to take the other’s situation into account. This is the essence of why it is hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (feel empathy) and have consideration and benevolence towards the other (feel compassion) if you yourself are structurally, intensely or repeatedly stressed. A sensitive, responsive approach of others is hard when you’re under stress: you have more than enough to deal with on your own.

Remember the Biosocial Inheritance? ACEs affect the biological mechanisms that are influenced by social factors. Specifically the combination of problematic effectuation of power relations between adults and children and its influence on stress regulation is the essence of Adult Supremacy. (Of course, all these aspects are intertwined!)

Responsibility (again, but different)

A responsive approach means that you react to someone else in an adequate manner, that you acknowledge the other person’s needs or try to meet them, that you see their questions and predicaments and take action. For that, you need a certain amount of empathy. If you have that, you can respond: you carry responsibility. In relation to stress and trauma, this is often described as ‘response-ability’: the ability to respond. When you are highly stressed and in a survival mode, you cannot answer, you are not answer-able, you do not have response-ability, not for yourself and not for someone else. Put differently: the more burdened parents and other adults are, with their present chores and duties or with pain, grief or trauma from the past, the harder it is for them to really see the child’s needs and satisfy them. This way, an endlessly repetitive pattern can arise of stress leading to stress, of disturbed development leading to disturbed development, of lack of connection with the self to lack of connection with the other, in short: of intergenerational trauma. The child, based on its immaturity, can usually change little to nothing about such a situation; that really is the task of the adults in the social community. They have to take up these issues and deal with them. Policies and therapies have to fix the adult problems, the adult structures, not the children. Those children and the problem behaviour they may exhibit, are only a symptom, a reflection of the problems in the adult world, in which the child loses the connection to self. This can happen because for the adults, the authenticity of the child, the unique singularity, the powerful urge to fully unfold itself, may be too much, too difficult, too complicated, too different, too confronting, too painful in relation to how they themselves were not allowed to be who they were when they were little. That is hard, because in order to survive and be happy, you need more than physical safety. Emotional security, being able to survive spiritually and creatively, are just as important, as we know from science today, because emotional insecurity leads to all kinds of misery. How can we prevent that?

An image describing the influences of different sectors of society in relation to ACEs

Investing in the child

As parents and adults, we all know this feeling of being ‘done’, ‘out’, of not being able to remain patient, of not wanting to be approachable for the needs and endless questions of our children. Does this explain something about how ‘troublesome’ and ‘nasty’ the child is? Or does the amount of impatience say something about the degree to which we are or are not sufficiently grown-up to see these child longings for what they are: a deep need to be heard, seen, valued and appreciated?
Modern science, both social and medical, shows how important those early years are: those who start out healthy, usually increase that positive head start; those who start out unhealthy, see diverse problems pile up throughout life. Childhood, thus, is a very intensive phase in life for parents, a phase in which they (have to) comprehensively put time and energy (and money) into the child’s future. This is not a plea for ‘child supremacy’, but it is a call to strive for more ‘child inclusivity’ as a society, for policies in which the needs and consequently the rights of children are taken much more seriously. Despite several trends to the contrary, it also seems urgent that the caring for children is no longer personally and societally viewed as a problematic set of expenses that are a nuisance, but as an honourable job, a fantastic investment in the new generation. Every child is born with a hidden potential. Through nurturing care, that potential can bloom and make the child flourish.

Taking care of children deserves more social and economic status than it possesses right now, but for that to happen, the adult supremacy will have to give way. Adult interests (more societal, such as neoliberal ideologies) and the interests of adults (more personal, such as individual development away from the child) will have to take a step back in relation to what children, as the weaker party in a power system of the community) need. That is probably a challenge for which a paradigm shift is needed, a fundamental change in how we view children. Such a change, however, in which compassion is key, along with curiosity about what drives the child, is more than worth the effort in all aspects, because, as the 19th-century, abolitionist activist Frederick Douglass said: ‘It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men’!

This was the final part in a series on Adult Supremacy.

Melting ‘The Little Iceberg’ – a children’s story about healing through connection

Today, we share with you a children’s story, written in a beautiful book, which turns out to be much more than that.

‘The Little Iceberg’ is connected baby’s first children’s book, carefully written by Nicky Murray and stunningly illustrated by Sylvia Lynch. Since it has come out, the book has seen unexpected success within the UK and other English-speaking countries, and has been picked up by parents, professionals and schools alike.

Nicky has been a primary and head teacher in Scotland for many years. During his teaching experience, he was struck by the amount of stress and fear that children often carry, and which adults often overlook. He decided to write this story as one way to help in regaining that lost connection for children who experienced various forms of emotional trauma. Sylvia is a lifetime artist who won the competition for illustrating the book, and we absolutely love the visual world she created, embedding the story in our imaginations so vividly.

‘The Little Iceberg’ is a powerful and creative story of an iceberg and a little bird set in the middle of the Arctic ocean.

  • The floating iceberg is a metaphor for a lonely and scared child, disconnected from the (social) world it belongs to, building a protective layer of thick ice to cope with the cold and hostile surroundings, and carrying a much larger burden underneath the visible surface. No one pays attention to the iceberg as it is just one of so many others, and everyone is scared of hitting its sharp edges and thick coat of coldness, although everyone maintaining so much distance is the last thing the iceberg wants.
  • The bird is a snow bunting, characteristic of the Arctic pole by relentlessly perching on ice shelves and burrowing itself in deep snow to stay warm, communicating through the most beautiful tunes. It represents the one who reaches out, who is not scared of being rejected, who finds the courage to show fierce compassion day after day, who eventually shows the iceberg that the world is not such a lonely place, that connecting to others helps in sharing the burden, that opening up and healing are possible, that freedom and happiness are also part of this world. We do not learn about her name, nor does the iceberg, for it does not matter who the bird is; it could be anyone – true kindness knows no demographics.
  • The Arctic sets the scene in a natural world of distant and unfamiliar land of ice, of an endless, deep and cold ocean, of storms and winds, representing the harsh and hostile world that trauma-loaded children who dissociated from their social world experience on a daily basis.

Importantly, the book comes with a companion guide written by the author, Nicky Murray, and our dear friend dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, entitled ‘Making sense of trauma’. Besides explaining the scene of the story, the guide takes the reader by the hand in understanding the themes that are implied in the story, how to make the best of it in recognizing the clues and reaching out to children, how to help them cope with stress, loss and loneliness, and how to use this story as a story of healing. All the themes implied in the story (such as loneliness, horizon scanning, sensory experiences, emotional storms, breathing, trust and hope) are elaborated in the companion guide and adults are provided with small action steps that can help children in coping with trauma.

This call and motivation to learn how to listen more closely to our little ones that ‘The Little Iceberg’ puts forward is embedded in a problematic context of what we have coined as ‘adult supremacy’, a power position in which adult interests consciously or unconsciously trump child wellbeing. As adults, we are constantly making decisions for our children. This is, of course, often inevitable in raising children and guiding them in their development. Is it possible, however, that, inadvertently, we take too much advantage of this power position we have? Is it possible that we often find it truly difficult to observe and listen to what they are trying to tell us? Is it possible that they are capable of clearly knowing their needs and understanding themselves much sooner than we think as a society? Is it possible that, regularly, we are not taking them seriously when we should, underestimate them when we shouldn’t? The scientific evidence points to a complex process of interdependency between the child and the adult, where children know how to listen to us and do so extensively, and it is us who are still learning how to listen to them.

By taking our children more seriously when they are trying to tell us something or when we feel that they are hiding something, we all stand a lot to gain. By finding a way to empathically reach out to our children and to learn what is going on in their lives, we can show our love for them and make them feel safe and secure, valued and connected. By gently addressing their sadness, we validate the often impressive experience of loss. This moving story underlines once more the value of quiet presence and active listening, of knowing what to look for and how to react. A genuine interest and non-judgemental understanding of our children’s emotional life, expressed through compassion and kindness, will go a long way to make them aware of how precious they are as a human being and to support their self-confidence. This story paves a way of how to do just that.

In short, it is a book about supporting society to understand and respond to difficult emotions, about teaching children to understand their feelings and reach out to others, about helping adults recognize behavioral signs of emotional disturbances and trauma in children either as parents or as teachers, about showing a way to rebuild lost connection through compassion and kindness. We really think that this book is for everyone, for every child, parent, teacher, professional out there. Therefore, we have made it part of our mission to translate the book and bring it to the Netherlands, share it in schools, in nursery homes, in general practitioner centers, all across the relevant fields. We will keep you posted on that process.

Here is the link to more information and purchasing of ‘The Little Iceberg’.

Here are two examples of users reviewing the book:  

“What a lovely book! Illustrations are beautiful. Wonderful way of helping children through a traumatic experience and particularly loss, helping them to understand that people who care for them are there to help them through it and how they can do this. Helping them to open themselves up to receiving help. Beautifully written and produced.” 

“Thank you for this book! It spoke to me as a person who lost someone close to me without a goodbye, and also as a practitioner and a book lover. I think it will be a very valuable tool when supporting families and the children that I teach. Simply beautiful.”

Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 4

Last week, we discussed that under stress, children develop coping strategies that are attuned to the situation in which they live or have to survive. Stress becomes toxic when social support is lacking; to handle this stress, children need the buffering protection of an adult for that. A situation in which the needs of the child are constantly trumped by the privileges, ambitions and biosocial needs of the adults continuously increases that stress and harms the health and wellbeing of the child. Analogous to white and male supremacy, we could call this Adult Supremacy (AS). How do we, as a society, deal with that power inequality, with the interest of the child in relation to the adult interests?

Nature or nurture? 

The AS-concept resulted from the fascinating question about the development of the young child into adulthood. How do we, as humans, build a view of the world around us? How does our personality build itself? How can we understand the way our health and wellbeing are rooted in our childhood? For decades, in discussions about the relationship between nature and nurture, between genetic and upbringing’s inheritance, between biological and social influences on personality and health, the balance tipped towards the first. If we look at parenting and many other forms of institutionalised policies, that is probably still the case for many. The thought often goes more or less like this: “Surely there is a certain influence of how we are treated, but, in the end, it is just about how we are, about what is in our genes. Some things are simply hereditary.”
This is an interesting position to take, because it also implies that when someone is (socially) dysfunctioning, we have to conclude that this person was born this way. They did not become this way due to the circumstances, but because of their genes – they were difficult, stubborn, lazy, headstrong, or selfish from the very start . This is quite an assumption to make, and at the same time one that doesn’t hold. Research has shown that such a position is way too simplistic and untenable in light of the current scientific understanding . It is a scientific consensus nowadays that the two are so intricately linked that they cannot be divided, unless we refer to a 100% genetically transmitted condition, such as Huntington’s disease. As such, the early years have proved to be way more important than we initially thought… or maybe rather than we hoped, because if these early years are so crucial, they place  a big responsibility on the shoulders of the adults around the child. And that actually is quite something! It tells us something about the status of the child in society and about whether we consider this status important enough to finetune our social practices to it.

Where do the child and the child’s interest stand in society?

In essence, AS is about the position of the adult in the life of the young child and, a bit broader, about the way in which adults deal with children and their interests, both in private life and through the national and local government, societal institutions and many forms of legislation. What is the position of children in our communities? How do we view them? How do we weigh their short- and long-term interests against our adult interests and adults’ interest? (More on the difference between the two next week.)
Regularly, the child’s interest comes off fairly poorly. In practical circumstances, but also in policy documents, the general tenor is: the child has to adjust to adult life and adult pace. Wordings like ‘prevent the child from taking over’, ‘make sure who’s in charge’, ‘be strictly consistent, because the child has to know where it stands’ all indicate what the power balance looks like: the child is the subordinate.
In this vein, there are several guidelines in the parenting field in which the fundamental tone is still very adult-centred: the interests of the adult are the guiding principle, as can often be gathered from the language used and the recommendations made in these policy documents. Combined with what we can perceive around us in (parenting) books and discussions about children, it can be very hard to remain optimistic regarding the extent to which we as a society keep the interests of the child in sharp focus. This is particularly the case when societies are facing exceptional problems as a whole, as has been the case since March 2020. Government policies state that they want to protect the most vulnerable, but is that indeed what happens? How are children being protected?

Two examples that might be considered AS

The present corona circumstances show some pressing AS-examples, two of which we will highlight here.
First, the closing of schools and childcare locations is meant to make sure that parents work at home and do not have to commute to bring and fetch their children. What is overlooked in this is that:
1) children have constantly been described as a non-substantial source of infection;
2) children need positive interactions for their social and intellectual development and school is for some children the safe place where they can flourish and can evade the (sometimes toxic!) stress of their home base;
3) children cannot get the care they need at home if their parents have to work there, which increases the chances of high stress to such levels that possibly everyone becomes a victim of it.
This government measure thus creates worrisome risk factors in relation to the child’s interest and seems to insufficiently recognise the importance of parental stability as the foundation of child wellbeing.

Second, there is the fact that professional lactation care is on the list of ‘non-necessary contact professions’, comparable to hairdressers and nail stylists. The foundation of health is laid in infancy, as is recognised globally and also by the Dutch government through the concept of ‘the first 1000 days’: you only have one chance of optimising this period. Breastfeeding is a part of those first 1000 days, based on nutritional components, the development of a healthy microbiome and thus immunity, and because breastfeeding facilitates and promotes healthy stress regulation and secure attachment. International documents speak about the child’s right to the highest attainable standard of health and in line with that, about the child’s right to be breastfed. This makes one seriously wonder how it is possible that the support for breastfeeding is not categorised as necessary care. This government measure, too, seems to insufficiently keep the child’s interest in focus and shows that the role of breastfeeding for health is still not properly acknowledged. This decision also insufficiently considers the significance of supporting powerful parenting, characterised by self-efficacy, which is so important for the extent to which parents can offer their child the aforementioned buffering protection in case of stress. Which AS-aspects can we uncover  in all this?

The essence of Adult Supremacy

Let us repeat the definition once more:
Adult Supremacy (AS) is a power position in which adults consciously or unconsciously cause their privileges, ambitions and (unrecognised) biosocial needs to trump child wellbeing, rendering the minor minor.
The essential components are probably clear:

  • it is about the power position of the adult: the child is dependent, the adult decides about issues that influence the child;
  • wishes and needs of the adult play an important role in that: the adult wants or needs to have a full time paid career, grapples with being overburdened in parenthood, does not want to allow the child what was not allowed in their own childhood, feels pressure to make clear who in the family makes the rules, based on personal trauma or common opinions about this;
  • adult interests are strived for, consciously or unconsciously at the expense of the child’s interest: adults are part of a large arsenal of social conventions and (have to) follow these without thorough reflection on how they correlate to child needs;
  • the minor becomes minor: adults do not see the child as an equal human with similar needs and feelings.

This is a tough list, one that can easily create the impression that the term Adult Supremacy is simply meant to picture parents as ill-willing creatures and to blame them for problems in the child. That is most certainly not the intention and therefore next week’s episode will delve into this more deeply.

An interesting and powerful statement by Benjamin Perks, UNICEF New York


The child’s interest is often considered of lesser importance compared to the adult interest. Behaviour and personality are often still seen mainly as a consequence of nature, of innate characteristics. As a consequence, the influence of nurture, the way we treat children, can be made less relevant or secondary. Seeing the extensive knowledge around the social construction of stress and behaviour and around the impact of buffering protection on the prevention of building life-lasting problems, it is rather shocking to note that many policies still fall short in taking those insights into account.

Next week, we will look at the responsibility adults have to really protect the most vulnerable and how that can be very difficult when they struggle with their own biosocial inheritance.

Our Society and Adult Supremacy, Part 3

Last week, we discussed that health and wellbeing are influenced by the biosocial inheritance, the very complex and historically formed interaction of social factors and biological mechanisms. Because of their complete dependence, children cannot escape adult decisions and will regularly have to sacrifice part of their authenticity to maintain the attachment relationship, with all due consequences. How can we understand the link between power relations and health?

Development and coping strategies

To grow, to reach its full potential, and to remain healthy, the human brain needs stimulating social interaction. The brain is not an ‘isolated data processor’, but an ‘ultrasocial and multiply connected social brain’. Through its experiences, it builds up a worldview and moral attitude, as social scientists Meloni and Narvaez describe it. The previously mentioned immaturity of the human baby at birth means that the biggest part of its development will take place outside of the womb. The advantage of that is that this development can then be optimally attuned to the lifeworld into which the child is born; that increases the survival chances in the present. A possible disadvantage however, is that problematic environmental factors lead to a stunted or deficient development, with an attunement that puts survival chances in the future under pressure.

For babies, infants, and young children, a social environment that is lacking in responsive care is a tricky issue. Often mostly unconsciously, there is this important question: ‘Whose needs are central here? Who is in control in this situation? Can I influence these circumstances? What strategy am I to use: fight, flight, or freeze?’ Whatever the choice may be… with all three coping strategies there will be stress. In the body, levels of the stress hormones increase and the child will enter a survival mode: restlessness arises, the fuse gets shorter, counting to ten becomes more difficult, approaching others calmly and confidently becomes an arduous assignment, accomplishing learning processes becomes an almost insurmountable problem.
And in all of this, all bodily systems are continuously under pressure. That is grueling; that wears out the body and shortens the lifespan. Based on the 1998 ACE-study, different pyramids have been developed to show this process. New versions become increasingly detailed by incorporating more of the different aspects of the biosocial inheritance. Below, you find one of those pyramids.

Is stress always bad?

It is not that as humans we are not able to tolerate any amount of stress. We simply need some stress, or we will not be able to reach any performance at all. In that context, the term ‘healthy stress’ is often used: you make an effort and exert yourself and afterwards you unwind and can come to rest. Situations that are hard, but can be handled, are categorised as ‘tolerable stress’: it is tough and you have to grapple with it, but with a loving social environment you find your balance back again. When severe stress is constant or repetitive and there is no escape from it, in a situation where the most close adults do not offer the child buffering protection, we speak of ‘toxic stress’. The word ‘toxic’ is based on the fact that brain cells die under such high stress levels and that the higher brain functions are harmed.

How can we prevent those problematic forms of stress? How, as adults, can we meet the intense needs of our children? How do we weigh our own interests and needs against those of the baby or infant? Do we organise our lives and societies around infant needs or do we strive for the child’s adjustment to the lives we led before we were parents, to the hectic of society as we know it? In most cases, this is not a decision we can make on a purely individual basis; after all, as adults we are embedded in a cultural, societal and socioeconomic system that makes demands on us and has expectations of us with regard to our availability. In this, it can once again be noticed that the biosocial inheritance is an important player where our health is concerned. That biosocial inheritance influences the extent to which we can take the evolutionarily built biological blueprint of our children seriously, with everything that flows from it: need and ability for connection, compassion, courage, curiosity, confidence, kindness, resilience – the seven pillars of ACE Aware NL.

Growth and social relationships

With the passing of time, children do not only grow physically; their personality grows as well. Studies with rats show that the quality of maternal care is a crucial factor for the future of the young: a caring and sensitive mother raises caring and sensitive pups. With humans, that kind of research is not very feasible: a human life spans a long period of time and during that time, there are incredible amounts of influences and habits that build on that early foundation and strengthen or, in contrast, weaken it. Still, from what we do know, it is constantly confirmed that the early stages strongly impact the rest of a human life. With that knowledge, the inescapable question arises: how do we create circumstances in which we can realise high quality maternal (and family and community) care? From Nelson Mandela we have this wonderful quote: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ How do we do that? How do we treat our children and how do we treat their needs? And how much of a say do our children have over decisions that determine their wellbeing?

White supremacy and male supremacy

When we ask about who makes the decisions, who is the boss, we speak about domination, or, in case of more stronger forms, about supremacy. In a situation of supremacy, you and your interests are placed above those of the other person. Your will is law, your vision is the norm, your activity has priority. In ‘white supremacy’, this shows itself in subordination of non-white people; in ‘male supremacy’, the issue is subordination of women and girls. This subordination has major consequences for the groups involved. You can think of influences on education, housing, work and social standing (social acceptance, reputation, prestige, authority). What we can conclude is that the supremacy of the one group threatens the health and wellbeing of the subaltern group. In this context, it is interesting to look at the social standing of children (and their social acceptance, reputation, prestige, authority!). Two questions puzzled me while thinking about this. First, is there an overarching concept in use that addresses the subordination of children? Second, is there a concept in use that relates to the social standing of children and in addition offers at least a partial explanation for white and male supremacy? My impression is that there is no way around it: there has to be a link between physiology and sociology, between supremacy and empathy, between health and power. There has to be a link between adult supremacy and the health and wellbeing of children.

Adult Supremacy

We know from physiology that a responsive, sensitive approach of others offers the best guarantee for the development of empathy, for learning to feel what someone else feels and for having compassion with them. If we would have to conclude that children are structurally subordinated, that quite often they are completely subjected to the choices adults make and that they have little opportunity to effect change in that situation and that the consequences negatively affect their health… should all of that, analogous to the other two concepts, not be called Adult Supremacy?
And would that not be a fairly logical explanation for those other forms of discrimination? If the infant’s needs are not met and the child regularly feels unsafe and insecure or threatened, how can we expect the child’s development of empathy to go smoothly? How can the child put itself in someone else’s shoes (with a different cultural background or a different gender), if it lacks that competence for empathy?
Based on my thoughts on these aspects, I have written the following definition for Adult Supremacy:
Adult Supremacy (AS) is a power position in which adults consciously or unconsciously cause their privileges, ambitions, and unrecognised biosocial needs to trump child wellbeing, rendering the minor minor.


Today’s conclusion can be that under stress, children develop coping strategies that are attuned to the situation in which they live or have to survive. Stress becomes toxic when there is no buffering support from an adult and the child feels or actually is structurally left to their own devices. High quality care prevents stress from becoming overwhelming and toxic. A situation in which the interests of the child are constantly trumped by ambitions and privileges of adults, will increase that stress and harms the health and wellbeing of the child. Analogous to white and male supremacy, we can call this Adult Supremacy.

Next week, we will look at practical examples and the concept of Adult Supremacy will be worked out in more detail.