Two videos recently circulated on social media and deeply affected me. They influenced the topic for this edition of ‘Because We Matter’ series.
The first video was of a mentally challenged young girl who got pregnant by an older man, and the second video was of a very young female child who was brutally physically abused by the lady she served. The videos have made the rounds, and many good samaritans have reached out and supported them financially, morally, and otherwise, but then I’m left with the question, “WHAT NEXT?”.
How long will we permit menaces that truncate a young person’s typical developmental trajectory? How long will our leaders sit back and do nothing for these vulnerable youth? Where do our priorities lie as a nation? Do we just shout out at the economic and security issues facing us as a nation, or do we also stand up and advocate for our youth and future leaders?
Let’s take a moment and discuss Childhood Trauma and its impact on the developing child. Normally, childhood is an experience most love to relieve owing to the lack of stress or responsibilities. Still, unfortunately, several Nigerian youths cannot boast of this experience due to unpleasant experiences that mar their childhood memories and cause lifelong challenges in different areas of their lives.
Childhood Trauma is any experience that a child (0-18 years of age) witnesses or experiences that they perceive as scary, dangerous, violent, or life-threatening (Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine). These experiences typically evoke fear and can overwhelm a young person, making them feel helpless. Trauma is a subjective experience, and the impact intensity may differ depending on various factors, for instance, if a traumatic event is persistent vs. transient. Some experiences that may be traumatic to the young developing brain include but are not limited to the death of a loved one, abuse, bullying, violence of any sort, poverty, accidents, racism, a significant medical diagnosis, etc. Despite adults thinking most times that kids are resilient and can easily pull through adverse experiences, unfortunately, trauma can have long-lasting impacts on a young person, which could affect their physical, mental, emotional, and social development. A study done on the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) on physical and psychological well-being, revealed that roughly 65% of children have been exposed to at least one adverse childhood experience, and about 40% have been through two or more adverse childhood experiences. The study concluded that the risk of developing physical and mental health issues is directly proportional to the number of adverse childhood events experienced by a young person, though it was limited to 10 different negative childhood experiences.
A common ACE is abuse. I’d like to take a moment to break down the word abuse. Abuse can be Physical, Emotional, Verbal, Sexual or Neglect. Many Nigerian youths are exposed to abuse daily, and the lack of good governance predisposes them to its persistence, thus amplifying the impact on their developing brains. Physical abuse refers to hitting a child with the hands, legs, head, or an object, sometimes inflicting bodily injury. Emotional abuse and neglect involve intimidation, threats, and deprivation of fundamental needs. Verbal abuse includes name-calling or insults, and sexual abuse refers to engaging in sexual activity with a minor or vulnerable young person as well as exposing them to sexual content, including inappropriate texts, videos, pictures, and pornography.
Traumatic experiences, as stated earlier, evoke negative emotions, which trigger the brain’s stress center, leading to a Flight, Fight, or Freeze response. These responses may be in the moment; however, it is pertinent to note that the lingering effect of trauma can present in many forms depending on various factors like pre-existing mental or physical illness, cognitive level of functioning, availability of support as well as the age, and developmental stage of the young person. There may be externalized features like anger, irritability, aggression, clinginess, easy startling, sexually disinhibited behaviors, overt personality changes, substance abuse, and interpersonal relationship challenges. There may also be internalized presentations like increased anxiety and avoidant behaviors, depression, regressive behaviors, increased fears, numbness or ‘zoning out,’ poor concentration, memory and learning difficulties amongst other possible presentations.
These are all presentations that the young person cannot control. The body activates defense mechanisms to help it cope with the impact of trauma. It may interest you to know that a child may start ‘identifying with the aggressor,’ which means that a child who was physically abused may become aggressive. A child who has been sexually molested may, unfortunately, end up being a perpetrator of sexual abuse on another which goes to say the lack of regulations to protect young people from abuse implies rearing a generation that may turn around to be societal threats.
A negative experience may not necessarily be traumatizing to a young person; however, at its worse, it can lead to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which has a more lasting impact. Post-Traumatic stress may lead to re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoidance of anything that reminds them of the trauma, or actual re-enactment of the trauma. Trauma leads to structural brain changes that alter the expected trajectory of a child’s development. Teicher et al. studied the relationship between exposure to childhood trauma and the developing brain. They found that most modifications found in the brains of young people exposed to abuse involved brain areas that help with emotion regulation, impulse control, and self-awareness thinking, concluding that exposure to childhood abuse or neglect predisposes to the development of severe mental health issues in later life.
I would take time in a later edition to address how to recognize and support young people who have experienced trauma, as this area is vast. The goal of this write-up is to raise awareness and advocate for every young person out there that may be going through abuse. Every stakeholder involved in child development and wellness should understand and acknowledge the impact of trauma on youth. Our leaders need to intervene promptly as our Nigerian children and youth are exposed daily to a level of abuse that undoubtedly will traumatize their developing brains. The children from the lower socio-economic classes and vulnerable youth with no voice speaking up for them are of particular concern. Thankfully, social media platforms have become excellent exposure channels for heinous acts perpetrated by adult Nigerians.
May I use this medium to appeal to our legislators, that Child protection laws be put in place and implemented without bribery or favors, which historically have afforded protection for individuals who carry out these actions and therefore face no repercussions? These acts will persist as long as there are no laws or policies that hold individuals involved with young people accountable for untoward actions. Child Abuse is and should be a reportable and punishable offense. Trauma has a far-reaching impact on our youth, and we owe it to them to preserve their future. By preventing some of these factors, we as a society will ensure that they have their normal growth and development. As a nation, we must say NO to Abuse or anything that may predispose our youth to trauma BECAUSE THEY MATTER!