Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic influences affecting a child’s prospects in life.
Parents who abuse drugs and alcohol, are sent to prison, inflict physical or sexual abuse or who are grossly neglectful, are impairing their children’s development and endangering their future. The stress of such experiences can lead to markedly poorer physical or mental health later in life, perhaps to homelessness, or to undesirable behaviour patterns which are either careless of one’s own well-being (self-neglect) or that of others (violence).
Carol Craig’s Hiding in Plain Sight scrutinises Scotland’s reputation for poor health and asks if the nation’s unduly high incidence of ACEs is the explanation, and whether childhood exposure to the effects of alcohol, violence, emotional abuse and neglect could be the key underlying factor.
While ACEs are of course a constant factor in the puericulture (rearing of children) of every country, Craig’s case is that Scotland has been particularly afflicted, and not just because of poor housing and poverty. She references the historic partiality for alcohol that costs 100,000 lives and billions to the economy. She confirms the added blight of drug culture. She chronicles the extent of dysfunctional households with war-damaged, undemonstrative fathers internalizing their trauma to the long-term detriment of their baby boomer offspring. Nationally, Craig also throws in the historic psychological harm from longer-term destabilization – the failed Darien Project, Act of Union, and Highland Clearances, with the final two prime role models for Scot-on-Scot harm.
At the level of the individual personality, she considers that ingrained Calvinist tendencies to fatalism and punishment, and a harsh and disparaging sense of humour are part of the explanation – all-in-all, a cocktail of factors amounting to a singularly Scottish take on cultural exceptionalism.
Do any other countries come close to matching Scotland’s exceptional statistics? American data show an approximation to the same level of ACEs in the Deep South – where large numbers of the population are of Ulster Scots heritage and share a child-rearing tradition emphasising blame and punishment.
Is she correct in her contention? The results of a Glasgow University study two years ago do not support the hypothesis that adverse early years and childhood experiences are significantly worse in Scotland and Glasgow than in England, Manchester and Merseyside.
But World Health Organisation figures on child mistreatment in eight other European counties do confirm the extent of the problem. They come from a WHO report which argues that the consequences of adverse childhood experiences can be countered with a coordinated, interdisciplinary approach.
The Scottish Government, aware of the scale of the problem, has made a specific commitment to go after the causes over the longer term in its programme for 2017-18, “A Nation With Ambition”.
This promises just such a coordinated focus across all areas of Scottish public education, health, justice and social work, with forthcoming measures to reduce parental imprisonment, more support for children and families in the very earliest years through the expansion of early learning and childcare, more investment in projects helping families to cope better, and steps to prevent children going into care.
But the practical suggestion of a named person scheme monitoring ACEs proved publicly and politically unpopular and was widely denounced as a Big Brother move, not least by experts in the field.
Taking the rap
Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey, in his book Poverty Safari, calls for less passivity from individuals marginalised by a relentless system. His perception is that since the political parties are enduringly ineffectual, beleaguered individuals must look hard at how their own failings contribute to their problems.
And Carol Craig’s own prescription for turning things around places emphasis on taking greater personal responsibility. “It is hugely important,” she says. “It is just not helpful to blame other people for everything bad about your life.”
This emphasis on self-awareness is a valuable insight for every reader of this book. No matter what the score on an ACE test might be, we all carry psychological baggage which is hidden from view, prompting frustrations, agitations and dissatisfactions which subtly impair behaviour in an inexplicable way. And if we can’t control events from day to day, then at least we can attempt to consciously manage our reactions to them.
All of us have had some adverse childhood experience, as no individual’s home environment can ever be perfect.
Hiding in Plain Sight gives voice to many individual stories – many from notable Scots speaking out – of stressful childhoods and inadequate parenting. This will give insight into the consequent problems and raise awareness of their alarming prevalence.
Craig insists the solution can begin on a personal level, and that lifestyles can be reformed. But she’s concerned that much of the ACE problem is “structural and cultural and endemic, and unlikely to change any time soon” and her misgivings are borne out by a study from End Child Poverty this month. It shows that almost half of the children in central Glasgow are now living in poverty, in homes where the family income is less than 60 per cent of the United Kingdom median.
Another recent report, by Scottish mental health body Vox, details how three-quarters of Scots with long-term mental health issues have been damaged by continued public spending cuts. Austerity policies by central government will mean the decade-long squeeze on living standards will continue, and the economic consequences of Brexit will surely only aggravate matters.
Carol Craig has seen and shown how the child is father to the adult, identifying the childhood stresses that result in lifelong damage. But without substantial easing of the economic tensions that strain a household to breaking point, the requisite change isn’t coming any day soon.
Carol Craig: Hiding in Plain Sight, CCWB Press (2017), available to order online from www.postcardsfromscotland.co.