Adverse Childhood Experiences: same sh*t different day, not in Wales.

In my view, some public services (and I include third sector) in Wales have made huge strides towards becoming more trauma informed in response to the ACEs research. Listening to the feedback from the latest round of PATH (Prevention, ACEs, Trauma, Homelessness) training for Housing and Homelessness staff made me believe that we are in a moment here, the movement is actually real. One comment that struck me was “since being on this training my manager has had a personality transformation”: what they were referring to was their manager’s behaviours now conveyed compassion and curiosity; their manager was now willing to sit with uncertainty and not need to know every answer and fix every problem. As a result the staff member felt truly empowered and able to feel their way through their job, their job had come to life.

The ACEs learning has connected so strongly I believe because many people, working in or around public services, already know it. ACEs or in other words childhood trauma can impact across the life course. No sh*t Sherlock right?

We have become used to celebrating the underdog stories of the people who have defied this script, who have changed their lives in spite of the challenges they faced. These stories help us believe that change is possible and if people work hard and have enough self-belief/want it enough then anything is possible. We too have credited ourselves as having a role in these poster girl stories, putting it down to our amazing services, believing that over-delivering on the hand holding never hurt anyone. But this movement it challenging that.

Charities/programmes and people who are good at runging the slippery ladders out of multi-generational ACEs already know that this is so much more than a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ story. They help facilitate the other stuff that makes the difference such as time to make relationships, being a trusted adult who notices and cares; asking people what matters to them and trusting people as experts of their own lives; they facilitate opportunities, they recognise that change is a process and not an event and they believe that all people are generally doing the best they can with what they’ve got, so at heart they are kind.

Knowing what works isn’t new. Making it stick is. When training to be a social worker 20 year ago (yikes) I learned about project MATCH, a large-scale study on effective treatment for addiction. It was notable because the outcome was essentially this: it doesn’t matter what therapeutic model is used, what works is supportive human relationships. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. If you do it with warmth and persistence, if you like people they will like you, if you are non-judgemental and transparent, if you assume nothing, then change is possible. As a social work student this study spoke to me, it told me I don’t have to be an expert to make a difference, I can be useful to the world just by being human.

So no news there then. But for me, the reason why this ‘old story’ won’t be the latest flavour of the month is because the light bulbs that are going on are largely to do with a greater self-awareness that knowing this stuff ignites. When you have that ‘aha’ moment about yourself you can’t unknow it. Which in turn is creating a greater empathy, effort, diligence and care in doing something about it. Awakening to our own stories and how they have shaped us and brought us to these roles where we are employed as ‘help’ (or “paid visitors” as Cormac Russell would say) helps level the ground. Finally, we see ourselves as part of this ever-evolving landscape of vulnerability and strength.

But of course there are risks to the movement’s momentum:

‘Empowering’ aka ‘leaving it to’ to the ever churning, empathically strained, under supported ‘front line’ presumably to go in to battle with multi-generational complexity at a structural level will only ever have limited success. These successes, indeed battles, will be poignant, important and hard fought but ultimately they will be limited.

Empathic strain is like creeping death to authentic relationships. When we are overwhelmed by hopelessness and underwhelmed by the support for our curiosity, for our willingness to sit with uncertainty, to give something of ourselves every day, for our belief that people are the experts of their own lives then it’s easier and indeed safer for us to go back to the process. Fill out the form, complete the assessment, diagnose, prescribe, signpost, map, follow the pathway, and tick the box. We learn how to survive, our lives and our jobs, by switching ourselves off. Ironically though it is at times of stress, when we need openness and curiosity the most, we feel the need to take control of situations and people: thus quashing creativity, gut instincts and feeling our way through things.

Also to be relational we need to be ourselves. Sounds easy but is it? We can only bring our whole selves if we feel safe. We can only feel safe if we are cared for. So who cares?

1. Ourselves (obvs) and we all know how high on our list of priorities our actual selves are (she says whilst eating 4th chocolate digestive in 5 minutes).

2. Each other, in our compassionate, connected and thriving communities. How’s that working out for you?

3. But also, our leaders, who need to solve the problems of growing demand and dwindling resources but also how to walk the line between on the one hand BEING compassionate, authentic and vulnerable and other DOING regulation, procurement, the law, professional boundaries, inspection, audit, the judiciary, and the ever potent ‘how we’ve always done things around here’. So if they didn’t have empathic strain before it might start to kick in about now.

Most powerfully though, leaders are creators of culture. “Culture eats strategy” every time. If ACE awareness is less about what we do and more about how we do it, brave leaders have to tip the balance and demonstrate they are less about doing and more about being. Until we have leadership that’s rewarded, and in turn rewards, behaviour over action and culture over strategy this may be the biggest risk to the tide turning.

But I am not disheartened. These are only risks because current culture and context hasn’t yet caught up with the shifts in our thinking. But they will. There are too many platforms burning inside people’s awareness not to make it so. Can you feel it?